The debut feature of German director/screenwriter Jan Ole Gerster, A Coffee in Berlin (alternate title-Oh Boy) was a huge success in its home country, having swept the 2013 German Oscar Awards.
A bit light on a true narrative structure, the film walks the audience through a day in the life of a 20-something Berliner, Niko (played by Tom Schilling), a college dropout who seems to be seeking a purpose for and with his life. Along the way, he commiserates with his actor friend, runs into a former classmate and in a cute and humorous b-story, seeks an increasingly elusive cup of coffee.
As described in the press notes:
Shot in timeless black and white and enriched with a snappy jazz soundtrack, this slacker dramedy is a love letter to Berlin and the Generation Y experience.
If you were to ask me to clearly describe the story, I am not sure I could provide you with a succinct response. That said, I was able to get through the 88 minute runtime without complaint. I really like it when a filmmaker tells their story with no desire to drag the story on beyond its natural life. A Coffee in Berlin gets its audience from points A to B by the most efficient means. This economy is something that A Coffee in Berlin really has in its favor. Also in its favor are the performances by its small ensemble, all who acquit themselves quite nicely.
For the most part, I understood and appreciated the humor, though at times the punchline missed the mark for me (I guess I am still a bit sensitive to humorous/self effacing references to Germany’s relatively recent past). In addition, while being a self-described “love letter to Berlin,” most of the film’s action takes place in interiors, thus depriving my wanderlust-filled eyes with some of the sights of the modern Berlin I looked forward to seeing.
Surely, this is not a revelation to many, but in a variety of ways, A Coffee in Berlin reminds me of another film dealing with a similar subject matter, the 2013 Greta Gerwig vehicle Frances Ha. From its black and white cinematography to the meandering journey of its central characters, I cannot escape referencing Frances Ha in my assessment of A Coffee in Berlin. The latter does go a little bit further in entering slightly darker subject matter and ends in a more ambiguous and less hopeful place; however this does not make it a better or worse film – it’s just different. And as with Frances Ha, I largely enjoyed the experience.