Niko is a slacker and college dropout eking out a living in Berlin. His first mission of the day is to get a cup of coffee – a task that will elude him. He meets with his friends, plays a round of golf with his father and gets bad news that will ruin his day in “A Coffee in Berlin.”
This is a low-key tragicom about a day in the life of Niko where he loses his bank card in the machine. The plot, as it were, builds as the young man journeys around the city, after breaking up with his girlfriend. While Niko is the focus of “A Coffee in Berlin,” it is the colorful characters that surround him - like his nosey neighbor, Karl, who pours his heart out to Niko about his life and his marriage - that fleshes things out. Niko’s is an aimless life, which becomes more and more apparent as his day drags on.
Tom Schilling is a blank cipher of a man who reacts to everything, never being proactive. His Niko is not living life, he is more just existing for coffee and cigarettes and Schilling maintains his blank person throughout the long day. We learn about him, though, through those around him, especially his father, Walter (Ulrich Noethan.)
First time feature film writer/director Jan Ole Gerster chose to shoot “A Coffee in Berlin” in black and white, giving the film a vintage look with the city of Berlin as its backdrop. Having been to that great city, the film also hit a personal note for me as Niko travels around the German capitol. It is not an “important” film but it is one that has stayed with me. I give it a B-.
First his girlfriend breaks up with him, then Niko Fischer (Tom Schilling, "The Baader Meinhof Complex") discovers he doesn't have enough cash to buy his morning caffeine. The ATM eats his card. His license is revoked at a hearing where he's deemed 'emotionally unbalanced.' A former bullied schoolmate's friendly exterior masks unresolved issues. As things continue on their downward spiral, Niko can't seem to get "A Coffee in Berlin."
There are so many good films that end weakly. "A Coffee in Berlin" does the opposite. This mashup of "After Hours" by way of Woody Allen is indulgent, Niko's repeated failure in attempting to get a cup of coffee an unoriginal hook, but the film is sprinkled with supporting roles and moments which are alternately amusing and touching. The film's finale is so strong, it almost convinces you you've seen a better film than you actually have.
We can see writer/director Jan Ole Gerster's influences at the onset, Niko's girlfriend Elli (Katharina Schüttler) "Breathless's" Jean Seberg in all but hair color. Almost every character he interacts with is passive aggressive, beginning with the guy (Andreas Schröders, "The Baader Meinhof Complex") who won't reinstate his license after a 0.07% alcohol reading. As he returns to his bare bones apartment, a neighbor, Karl Speckenbach (Justusvon Dohnányi, "The Experiment"), arrives bearing home cooked meatballs (and a flask), but he's really looking for an ear for his life's woes. A late visit with his golf nut dad (Ulrich Noethen, "Downfall") reveals that Niko's been lying about having dropped out of law school and his card was eaten by that ATM because dad found out and will no longer fund him.
At a trendy eatery with his actor friend Matze (Marc Hosemann, "Soul Kitchen"), which naturally has a broken coffee machine, Niko makes eyes with a cute girl who comes over and introduces herself as Julika Hoffmann (Friederike Kempter), the old classmate he used to taunt as Roly Poly Julia. She invites them to her performance art piece later in the evening (and leaves without ever having ordered anything?). On the set of Matze's friend Phillip Rauch's (Arnd Klawitter, "U-571") movie, the coffee urn is empty and the film's a screamingly awful cliche about a Nazi officer in love with a Jewish bookstore clerk, a joke which will be revisited in more serious fashion later. In one of the film's truly touching moments, Matze stops to buy weed from his friend Marcel and Niko waits talking with Marcel's Oma, Frau Baumann (Lis Böttner), an old woman thrilled to receive attention from anyone. Matze laughs at Julika's performance piece, riling its director, while she laughs it off, coming onto Niko. But she also gets in a fight with a street thug (Frederick Lau) who calls her names, requiring Niko's gallantry, then comes onto him, demanding to be called 'fat girl' during sex, which he terminates to a barrage of abuse. Stopping in at a bar on the way home, a drunken old man makes him uneasy with 'Heil Hitler's,' but his story is disturbing, a remembrance of his father throwing rocks during Kristallnacht. When Friedrich (Michael Gwisdek, "Good Bye Lenin!") collapses on the street outside, Niko stays with him and it will prove a life changing experience.
Ole Gerster's digital black and white photography recalls the French New Wave, his jaunty jazz score (which he leans on heavily for tone) Woody Allen and his 24 hour tale countless other films from the aforementioned "After Hours" to "Oslo, 31 August." It's surprising that this film swept Germany's 2013 Lola film awards competing against the likes of "Lore" and "Hannah Arendt." But this is the filmmaker's feature debut and while he wears his influences on his sleeve, he also has shown the capability to shift tone and his film has some genuinely funny and moving moments.
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