Throughout A Coffee in Berlin, the drifting slacker protagonist tries to find a good cup of coffee, while curious events keep getting in the way of collecting the caffeine. Sometimes, the coffee is too pricey. At other times, the place is short supplied. It is a good metaphor to represent the life of a man who could surely use a jolt of caffeine to spur things back into action. However, one can say the same thing for Jan Ole Gerster’s film, both deadpan and depressing, as it searches for the tone and spirit of other classic movie featuring the aimless youth wandering around a big European city. Though it has its moments, A Coffee in Berlin needs a shot of warmth and energy to wake it up.
Shot on-location and in crisp black-and-white, the film follows Niko Fischer (Generation War’s Tom Schilling), a law school dropout getting over an old relationship and trying to figure out where to go from here. He wanders around Berlin bumping into old friends and discovering new alliances. In his late twenties, resources are starting to dry out, as is his responsibility to find a job and make a living. In one of the film’s bleakly funny moments, Niko inserts his bank card into an outdoor ATM. When the machine swallows the card, he glances at the bum sleeping next to the machine and tries to take a few dollars out of the man’s Styrofoam cup. Obviously, things do not go as smoothly as Niko plans.
During his malaise, Niko bumps into an old classmate, Julika (Friederike Kempter), whom he used to tease for being chubby (although she has since blossomed). He also heads to a film shoot with one of his pals, Matze, (Marc Hosemann) an aspiring actor who also never made much of his life. Some of the slice of life vignettes are wryly funny, while others merely show just how pathetic this plotless protagonist is. When Niko visits his wealthy father (Ulrich Noethen) at the latter’s country club, his dad does not spare to criticize his son’s misery upon having no funds left in the bank. He simply does not want to support his son with $1,000 allowances, after he dropped out of school and is wasting away the early years of his adulthood. “Cut your hair, buy some decent clothes and get a job like everybody else,” his father says, leering. At this point, the audience has to wonder why we are even rooting for this slacker.
While the townspeople are rushing around, thinking of the places they urgently need to be, Niko just wanders wistfully. A Coffee in Berlin is punctuated with some priceless comedic moments, but by the halfway point, we are just pleading for the protagonist to start moving toward some attainable goal. The only races in the character’s life are to get to the next subway before it leaves, which is curious given his lack of destination. Niko is a rather formless protagonist, surrounded by a more interesting variety of pals, from the potential girlfriend who reshaped her life (literally) after losing a ton of weight and becoming a dancer to the old man telling Niko stories of the war and Nazi destruction. The protagonist plods around with privilege on his shoulder, but little else shaping his personality.
With Aaron Paul’s face and James McAvoy’s hair, German actor Tom Schilling does a fine job here, bringing glimmers of deadpan humour and bruised humanity to what was likely a blank role on the page. The Berlin native has a fresh and readable face, although he does not always have much to say. The performance is based more on reacting than acting, as Schilling finds calm in the peaceful jazz that plays on the soundtrack (and likely in the character’s head) and amusement in the bustling Berlin city life. Meanwhile, for a city that even gets its name in the film’s title – although to be fair, the German title translated to Oh Boy! – Berlin feels like less of a character than a location. With the exception of a train that ricochets through town and a couple of local bars and apartments that house conversation between Niko and new friends, the city is just a backdrop that does not make much of a noticeable impression.
Perhaps Gerster decided on Berlin as the setting to compare the continually changing identity and quick, modern pace with that of a protagonist with a rather shallow list of goals – that coffee, for instance – and lack of momentum to get to that destination. Berlin has, in recent memory, been a city with an eye on its future, one reunified and now bustling with possibility. It is a city of perpetual movement, yet A Coffee in Berlin wants to focus on one aspect without any sense of forward momentum, leading to a film that is too sour and slow to ever find its footing.
Although expertly acted and photographed, A Coffee in Berlin is a drifting deadpan comedy that could have used a shot of caffeinated energy.