Niko Fischer is having a bad day. The kind of bad day we all experience from time to time, a day that takes so many unexpected twists and turns—all generally in a negative direction—that the smallest joy could feel like the Holy Grail. On this day, Niko’s broken up with his girlfriend, financially cut off by his father and denied his driver’s license for being “emotionally unstable” (and thus likely to drink and drive again). And all he wants is a cup of coffee.
The wonderful A Coffee in Berlin, written and directed by Jan Ole Gerster, takes us through Niko’s quest for a cup of Joe as the world slowly falls apart around him. Berlin is gorgeously shot in black and white and scored with loose, atmospheric jazz as Niko wanders from one seemingly unrelated event to another. Tom Schilling plays Niko with a warmth the character may not deserve but that he wears well. After all, much of what happens in ostensibly Niko’s fault. For the past two years, he’s lied to his father about being in law school to avoid disappointing him but also to receive 1,000 euros a month. When asked what he’s actually been doing, all Niko can come up with is “Thinking about me … and thinking about you.”
Hunter S. Thompson once wrote, “A man who procrastinates in his choosing will inevitably have his choice made for him by circumstance.” Niko finds himself at the wrong end of that statement, having seemingly not made a conscious choice for two years.
The attractive young man, never far from a cigarette or a swig of vodka, has meandered through life for long enough and decides to take a more active approach. Unfortunately, those years of indecision have begun to haunt him. By the time he watches his friend, Matze (Marc Hosemann), eat lunch, all Niko wants is a coffee. But the machine is broken, he’s already lost his credit card (which doesn’t work anyhow), had a tiff with his probably-ex-girlfriend, and tried to take back money from the homeless man he’s just given it to.
At lunch, a former classmate Julika Hoffmann (Friederlike Kempter) invites him to a performance art show she stars in that evening. Niko is busy trying to place Julika, who realizes he might as well be speaking to a stranger. “I used to be three times bigger,” she explains, and Niko remembers his 13-year-old self calling her “Roly Poly Julika” while she fawned over his every angle.
The lackadaisical film meanders much like our lost Niko, from a crude neighbor who barges in to cry about his sexless marriage following his wife’s bout with breast cancer (“They took her whole rack”) to an old man who opines that he understands no one (and with whom Niko ends up in the ER). It remains absorbing through, from small callbacks such as the stranger who witness him attempting to steal from that homeless man and later watches him purchasing two bottles of vodka, to his perpetually failing quest for a cup of coffee.
Berlin is reminiscent of New York in Woody Allen’s Manhattan and Noah Buambach’s more recent Francis Ha. Beautiful in black and white, it’s as much a character as anyone in the film, lending a certain gravitas to Niko’s search, not just for coffee but for identity.
Though on paper he sounds like a cretin, Niko cares deeply for those around him, even as he lacks the ability to fully embrace said caring. Always seeking to do the right thing, even if he often finds himself doing the opposite, his conflicting conscience leads the film to unexpected and delightful turns in its brief 85 minutes.
Niko clearly has much to figure out, but Jan Ole Gerster is right on point with A Coffee in Berlin. If simple meandering can be this enthrallingly lovely, Ole Gester should have no trouble with his next project.
Director: Jan Ole Gerster
Writer: Jan Ole Gerster
Starring: Tom Schilling, Katharina Schüttler, Justus von Dohnányi
Release Date: June 13, 2014