A largely enjoyable, understated picture that will tickle those with a taste for DIY indies and the French New Wave.
A Coffee in Berlin
Like a lost relic from the French New Wave, A Coffee in Berlin dazzles with its melancholic black-and-white imagery and a jazzy soundtrack in line with Woody Allen’s New York ballads, following law school dropout Niko Fischer (Tom Schilling) as he hops from one peculiar encounter to another across the city he’s been stumbling through all his life. The film swept the German Oscars last year, and with it now finding U.S. distribution, we’re finally treated to its modest pleasures.
In his debut picture, Jan Ole Gerster tells an absorbing day-in-the-life story of a young man adrift in a sea of Generation Y wooziness. The film opens with scruffy Niko and his short-haired girlfriend breaking up in her bedroom. She asks him out to coffee, but he declines, claiming to have “a million things to do.” He’s barely trying. He’s got nothing to do. She knows it, he knows it, we know it. The scene ends, and Niko’s fatal flaw is revealed: he’s got no energy to commit to anything, even a beautiful girl shooting him flirty smiles in an unmade bed. He’s a sleepy fellow who believes he’s got nothing to offer the world.
The scene aesthetically recalls Breathless, but Niko is no Michel. He’s got no vigor, no drive to take what he wants, when he wants it. His license is taken away due to drunk driving, his daddy cuts off his allowance (which he’s been living on), and he even resorts to nicking change from a sleeping bum’s tip cup. That is, before a disapproving passerby catches him in the act. It’s a wonderfully funny scene, and most of the film’s humor stems from the unlucky Niko getting beat up by the universe.
Schilling is super-cool in his black leather jacket and button-down shirt. His a performance predicated on disconnection with the world, and yet he’s completely likable and relatable. There’s never any oomph given to the lines he delivers, because that’s what the role dictates. And yet, we listen closely to every word because we know he’s on a journey. He’s a nobody on his way to becoming somebody, and we want so badly for that somebody to break through his carefree veneer. His slow transformation from drifter into searcher is gripping.
The black-and-white aesthetic was a wise choice by Gerster, reflecting Niko’s state of mind while painting a beautifully dark, shadowy portrait of Berlin. There’s something about the combination of B&W images and piano music that fits so perfectly. Maybe it’s their shared percussive nature, or their ability to highlight the skeletal beauty of the art they bring to life. Or maybe it’s the color of the ivory keys that come to mind. Whatever it is, the sweet combination makes A Coffee in Berlin a pleasure to drink in, sip by luscious sip.
The film’s structure is simple but enjoyable, with Niko running into someone, having a weird conversation with them, then leaving equally befuddled and contemplative. From a creepy upstairs neighbor who offers Niko his wife’s meatballs to a girl named Julika who’s crush on and grudge against Niko have endured since they were kids, every encounter is interesting and well-written. There are some moments of tragedy and drama peppered throughout, but they’re half as affective as the moments of awkward hilarity. (The most poignant encounter is a short, simple one in which Niko tries out an elderly woman’s electric recliner.)
Least successful of all scenes is the film’s finale, sadly, which leaves a sour taste. Niko is joined at the bar by an old man who shares a sorry tale from his childhood about broken glass and bicycles. It’s all very reminiscent of one of Tom Waits’ earlier bar ballads, with the old man drunkenly stumbling through his story. The scene ultimately feels regrettably manipulative not in tune with the rest of the picture, which never begs for your attention. It’s like a street performer desperately shoving his tip jar in your face after a great performance: We would have offered up our money anyway, but now you’ve killed the mood. Still, A Coffee in Berlin is a largely enjoyable, understated picture that will tickle those with a taste for DIY indies and the French New Wave.