You still got me: Benjamin Braddock as a German millennial
If you’re looking for a respite from X-Men, Spider-Man, Transformers and other big budget blockbuster men of all types, look no further than German writer/director Jan Ole Gerster’s subtle yet compelling A Coffee in Berlin, an indie about a flailing young man in modern-day Berlin who’s about as far removed from those purposeful heroic types as you can get. Geared toward the millennial set, the picture nevertheless has a universal appeal, and will resonate with those who have ever felt lost, confused, and unsure of their place in adult society.
The film’s German title is actually Oh Boy, which fits a bit better, as the story follows Niko (an excellent Tom Schilling), an immature 20-something young man on the cusp of adulthood who is struggling with adult feelings and responsibilities as he turns the corner from very young man to young adult. We get a sense of Niko’s difficulties – he’s been arrested for drunk driving and lost his license, he’s just been dumped by his steady girlfriend, he’s dropped out of college and lied about it, and his father has cut him off financially.
With its moody jazz soundtrack and black and white cinematography, Gerster’s film has naturally drawn comparisons to the early work of both Jim Jarmusch and Woody Allen (Manhattan, with its similar deep sense of place particularly comes to mind), but in tone, style, and subject matter, Gerster’s picture more closely resembles 1967’s The Graduate, as well as last year’s indie darling Frances Ha.
Indeed, Although Niko has not graduated from college- – – he’s dropped out – – like The Graduate’s Benjamin Braddock, who replied to his father’s question of “What are you doing!?” with “Drifting… I’m just drifting here in the pool,” Niko responds to his father’s question about what he’s been doing the past two years instead of attending school with, “Thinking.” You half expect his father’s assistant to whisper “Plastics!” to Niko as they lunch after a round of golf.
Gerster’s film presents a snapshot of what a typical day for Niko might entail during his two years of “thinking” – although Braddock’s “drifting” may indeed be the more appropriate word choice; we understand that Niko, too, just like Benjamin did over 45 years ago, wants his future to be “different,” and feels like an outsider. And like Greta Gerwig’s floundering millennial Frances, Niko, despite having made questionable choices, comes across as a likable, sympathetic character, authentically trying to find where he belongs. Schilling nails Niko’s passivity, ennui, and confusion with grace and raw honesty.
The film also benefits tremendously from its Berlin setting. The cinematography is stunning, effectively showing a city in transition – graffiti, constant construction, and modern apartments and buildings contrast with the young characters, for whom Berlin’s role in World War II is just a story they see on film or hear about from grandparents. This weight of history is felt through Niko’s interactions with a variety of eccentric characters, serving to highlight various aspects of his personality and his gradual maturation.
The last character Niko meets, late at night in a bar, is a Berlin native who reminisces about being a small boy during Kristallnacht, and regretfully recalls being worried only about not being able to ride his bike in the broken glass. Niko’s engagement with this man anchors a powerful scene in which, through Niko’s reaction and response to the older man, we see a glimpse of the sensitivity and emotional intelligence that Niko has within him, but hasn’t yet fully tapped. Similarly, Niko’s visit to a movie set where an actor acquaintance is filming a maudlin, sentimental World War II romance is a stark contrast to the reality of the War’s legacy on Berlin and beyond.
The film isn’t all heavy drama, though; a very funny running gag – – which inspired the American title – – has Niko unable to procure a simple cup of coffee during the course of the one long day and evening that the film covers. Niko’s dismay at this inconvenience works well as a metaphor for the frustrations he faces with the more serious aspects of his life. Supporting actors in smaller roles, including Ulrich Noethen as Niko’s father, Marc Hosemann as Niko’s friend Matzke (a Hunter Thompson-esque character), Friederike Kempter as Niko’s former classmate-turned-avant-garde-performance-artist Julika, and Michael Gwisdek as the old man Niko meets in the bar all give sharp and funny performances that contribute greatly to the film’s poignancy and humor.
The picture swept last year’s German equivalent of the Oscars, winning Outstanding Feature Film, Best Director, and Best Actor, and deservedly so. A powerful and meditative exploration of both a city and a young man in transition, this unique picture is not to be missed.
A Coffee in Berlin opens today at the Opera Plaza Cinema in San Francisco and the Shattuck Cinema in Berkeley. In German with English subtitles.