When considering alternate titles to the German comedy “Oh Boy” that ultimately reaches American shores this week as “A Coffee in Berlin,” it would’ve been appropriate if not necessarily commercially beneficial to rechristen Jan Ole Gerster’s narrative debut “Hell is Other People.” Although a shoutout to Sarte may have been harsh, it would’ve also been as direct in its intentions as the black-and-white film that follows the young man Niko Fischer (Tom Schilling) through an eventful day in which his desire to be left alone is constantly punctured by the city he lives in.
It would seem that Niko is caught in a lie when we first meet him, putting his pants back on in the apartment of what’s presumably a one-night stand and telling the woman who has just awakened “I’ve got a million things to do.” Considering the casualness he treats the situation he’s leaving, there wouldn’t appear to be much awaiting Niko outside her door, but indeed, the 24 hours ahead prove otherwise. Thanks to a few too many spins behind the wheel over the legal alcohol limit, Niko is without a car and has to suffice on his feet, the train or Heaven forbid, his temperamental friend Matze (Marc Hosemann) for transport across the city, leaving him little room to flee when others approach him to talk. The reasons for Niko’s discontent aren’t ever fully uncovered, though a visit to his father at a golf course reveal he’s left school and been living off money intended for tuition for some time. On this day, there’s also the matter of a cup of joe always being just out of reach, not unlike the distance Niko places between himself and others.
With a lighter touch than that strained metaphor might suggest, Gerster has considerably better navigational skills than his main protagonist, making “A Coffee in Berlin” an enjoyable romp. Nearly every frame of Philipp Kirsamer’s cinematography could easily be frozen and presented as still photography, disarmingly alive in its depiction of Niko’s typically mundane encounters. But Gerster’s script also entertains in the elliptical conversations Niko is forced to engage in, whether it’s his new neighbor whose cheery gesture of goodwill in the form of a plate of his wife’s homemade meatballs turns into a sob story once he invites himself in or when Niko hops a subway, short on cash, and finds himself in the clutches of two self-appointed citizen police who mimic each other’s taunts.
The film is filled with distinct characters who all make an impression upon Niko, whom Schilling plays with just enough expressiveness for the audience to see how they’ve made a dent. It is the sign of a first-time writer/director that there is some unevenness in the film’s series of encounters. The most compelling is Niko’s run-in with a perky performance artist named Jullika (Friederike Kempter) he knew from school, alternately emboldened and likely forever wounded by the many pounds she’s shed since her teen years, toughened by life in a way that Niko can’t even imagine. Gerster also works hard for an unexpectedly poignant observation about the character of Berlin and its willingness to change, with allusions made to the ghosts that have haunted the city since World War II and all the different locales Niko travels out to.
For an American audience, this can be both delightful and slightly frustrating. An early interaction between Niko and a testy evaluator of his driving prowess felt as though it would be funnier for locals as it quickly escalates and the fact that “A Coffee in Berlin” swept the German Academy Awards suggests it may be more resonant as well. However, with its jazzy score, cool imagery and a sharp sense of humor, it has all the appeal of the escape from the world that its hero is looking for while supplying the satisfaction that can only come from sharing that experience with someone else.
“A Coffee in Berlin” opens in New York at the Sunshine Cinema on June 13th, Los Angeles at the Nuart on June 27th and a host of other theaters across the country in the coming weeks. A full list can be found here.