The offbeat outing
A Coffee in Berlin swept up the 2013 Deutscher Filmpreis Awards, and is said to have announced a major new talent in first-time filmmaker Jan Ole Gerster. That may seem like slightly effusive praise on the face of it -- this is a minimalist seriocomedy, not the sort of stylistic tour de force that heralds a new directorial voice. To be certain, Coffee is smoothly and competently directed and does transcend the limitations of the archetypal slacker comedy with some fascinating ruminations on the German national character and zeitgeist, three quarters of a century post-fascism. Unfortunately, though, the screenplay feels weak and ultimately unresolved, which keeps the motion picture from achieving excellence. Tom Schilling stars as Niko Fischer, a twentysomething law-school dropout drifting aimlessly through life in Deutschland's capital city. On one particular day, he engages in pas de deux with several others, including a psychologist appointed by the driver's bureau to evaluate his relationship with alcohol, and a comely barista who gives him trouble when he simply wants to buy the titular beverage. On the personal front, Niko must also contend with a dissatisfied girlfriend and his bourgeois father, who, upon learning for the first time of Niko's withdrawal from university, grows irate and shears off his allowance. Relatively speaking, the responses of some of these individuals seem a bit more reasonable than others. For instance, we can sort of understand the father's rage over the discovery that the young man frittered away a thousand euros a month for two years. The court therapist, on the other hand, is such an obstreperous ass that we can barely stand to be in his presence for more than 30 seconds; some will want to punch him in the mouth. However rational or irrational they seem, though, the majority of the supporting characters share a basic snottiness, a herd-like tendency to seize upon the insecurities of the little guy and pounce on him (or her) with unrelenting verbal and emotional abuse. And although Niko defends himself to a degree, he constantly exudes the aura of a spineless victim, all too familiar with being pummeled. One supporting character stands out from the rest and gets more screen time. Niko crosses paths with Julika ( Friederike Kempter), a former classmate who apparently used to be obese and endured endless social torture. After a botched suicide attempt, she lost a great deal of weight at a "special boarding school" and now looks like a supermodel. She's transparently interested in Niko, and invites him to an experimental dramatic performance that she's doing on-stage. They seem to be headed for a romantic evening together following the show, and even begin an assignation in a nearby restroom, but the couple's chance encounter with a bunch of misogynistic punks on the street further delineates Julika's relationship to Niko within the context of the drama: If he's a bit toothless and ineffectual when standing up to others, she practically craves confrontation and will berate and diss anyone who even hints at crossing her. To Gerster's credit, the movie never travels too far down the path of a romance between the acquaintances; it's too sagacious for that. Gerster is arguing that the aforementioned mob mentality is now pervasive in German society, and that a reaction at either end of the spectrum -- Niko's conditioned responses or Julika's aggression -- would be ill-advised and seriously counterproductive. The drama drives home its social allegory with yet another chance encounter in one of the closing scenes -- this one set in a bar between Niko and an elderly German man who sidles up to the youth and begins pontificating. He drunkenly does an in-jest "Heil Hitler", then ruminates over memories of Kristallnacht (the ultimate illustration of German acquiescence to the herd instinct) and his regret that he could never ride a bicycle down the street after that given all the broken glass. This is a curious metaphor: intriguing on the surface, less satisfying when you really begin to mentally dissect it (the selfish implications about riding the bicycle vis-à-vis the atrocities actually transpiring on the Night of Broken Glass weaken our perception of the value of standing on one's own). But it is clever enough that, again, we can laud Gerster for trying something so unique and different. On an intertextual level, some observers have attempted to tie Coffee in with the small-scale comedies of Bent Hamer and Jim Jarmusch. That's understandable, because Gerster's voice is equally slight and low-key, with little wisps of humorous observation; furthermore, Hamer and Jarmusch are commendable influences for the director to have. He even uses black-and-white cinematography, as Jarmusch did in and Stranger Than Paradise Coffee and Cigarettes. But this is ultimately a myopic classification. The movie's social fabric points to the subgenre of film in which it actually belongs: It feels more aptly grouped with pictures like Fred Schepisi's A Cry in the Dark and John Irvin's Turtle Diary, both of which take on (and piece apart and excoriate) key aspects of the national character that they're observing. In this case, the German character is so notoriously complex -- both neurotic and tortured by the past -- that the very attempt is noteworthy. That alone may account for the picture's popularity with critics on local shores. While everything up through the bar exchange feels smart and fairly well-gauged, A Coffee in Berlin falls apart in the concluding five minutes. As an allegory, it needs to show Niko taking some decisive step forward -- no matter how miniscule -- to reveal an internal arc. What does happen in the final scene puts an ironic cap on the picture -- a zinger that resolves a recurrent joke in the movie in a very pat, trite way, but does nothing to actually advance the character. It's a big letdown, especially after the film has already won us over. We've come to empathize with Niko, and long to see him leave slackerdom behind and develop greater temerity and decisiveness. That doesn't happen, and it's a disservice to the movie. But many aspects of his experience are acutely observed, relatable, and alternately funny and touching. Watching this picture, we're reminded of that old proverb that the journey means more than the destination: Even if Coffee falls apart in the denouement, there are still many little pleasures to be had along the way.
All Movie Guide - Nathan Southern