By Afra Nariman
A Coffee in Berlin (2012)
(Also Known as Oh Boy!)
Directed by: Jan Ole Gerster
Stars: Tom Schilling, Friederike Kempter, Frederick Lau
A day in the life of a college dropout, who by the end of the day, decides to stop wasting his time and begin engaging with his life.
A story that revolves around today’s younger generation, many of whom coast through their twenties with no sense of urgency or motivation for anything that matters. Niko has dropped out of law school, allowing his father to continue believing that he is attending, and thus send him money periodically for his studies. Now, he has no plan, no job, no purpose and he drinks a lot. He wanders around, wasting time with no real direction. A Coffee in Berlin (also titled Oh Boy!) tells the story of one day in Niko’s purposeless life, as he slowly comes to terms with himself and eventually realizes that he needs to take life more seriously. In other words, after refusing to “grow up” for years, Niko finally learns the importance of doing so and in making something of his life.
The film is filled with witty comedy and fun jazz music to accompany its many visual jokes. One of the comedic themes that is highlighted both through the film’s many segments and in the film’s title itself, is Niko’s search for a cup of coffee on this day in Berlin. He has terrible luck with this minor craving of his. The first attempt he makes, the coffee is too expensive for him to afford. Some of the other times he tries and is unable to have his coffee are: when a coffee machine is broken, the coffee is finished on the set of a friend’s film, his dad urges him to drink alcohol instead of coffee, a bar only serves alcohol at night, and the hospital machine is out of order.
Throughout the day, he encounters many situations that lead him to rethink his decisions, values and his approach to life. First, his father learns that he had been lying about his studies and closes his bank account, leaving him utterly broke. Then he is reacquainted with Julika, a girl from his school days who he used to bully. Finally, he meets an elderly stranger who puts life in perspective for him. He speaks to Niko about how time has flown by. He explains how so many things have changed in the city from his younger days and how his life has passed him by. After finishing his conversation with Niko, he leaves the bar but doesn’t make it too far before collapsing and eventually passing away at the hospital. Although a stranger, Niko takes the elderly man’s death to heart. After the day he’s had where he has felt lost and has come to terms with the need to approach life in a new and purposeful way; his conversation with the old man was eye opening. He realized that time passes by faster that it may seem, and that the end is inevitable. The old man’s death only cements Niko’s realization that he needs to stop wasting time and start engaging with his life. Symbolically, after leaving the hospital, Niko goes to a diner where he finally gets his cup of coffee. It is early the next morning; a new day, and the start to a new life for Niko.
The cup of coffee in this film is a subtle representation of Niko’s struggles. The film is communicating that when you are disengaged with life, aimlessly wandering through each day without a care in the world; even the smallest things become difficult to come by. For Niko, after realizing his mistaken approach to life and showing an intent to change his ways (although not explicitly portrayed in the film), he finally got what he wanted… a cup of coffee in Berlin.
Niko’s inability to drink his daily coffee was far from being the only comedic element of value in the film. Almost every scene felt like a separate segment of the story, each containing it’s own ruse or comedic moment. The most notable examples are: his conversation with his new neighbor who begins to emotionally open up to Niko on the day they meet, his actor-friend’s gag of pulling the car forward every time Niko wanted to get in, the random girl who witnesses him attempt to take money back from a homeless person and buy 2 bottles of alcohol, and when he first meets Jerika who opens up about her past. The topics discussed by Jerika and Niko’s neighbor are inherently sad and serious, but their timing and the situational absurdity from Niko’s point of view disguises the seriousness of their lives and adds to the randomness and overwhelming pressure on Niko’s day.
The film feels very realistic. It’s flow, cinematography, and other elements of filmmaking are superb. It also pulls you in and out of the story, making you feel completely engaged and captivated in one scene and then in the next scene, it completely pulls you out and reminds you that you’re watching a film. A Coffee in Berlin is stunningly shot in black & white and has a perfect soundtrack to accompany the funny, random and eventually meaningful scenes of Niko’s day. The film seems uneventful and insignificant from the surface, but when watched closely and taken in for everything it has to offer, you realize how genuine it really is. It tells the story of the young person, riddled with unwanted responsibility, but who eventually realizes that living aimlessly is not in his best interest. Everyone he meets has a passion or a career; they do something. He realizes that life is meant to be engaged with and every moment should count towards living a purposeful life. In many ways, the film serves as a perspective to life, and what should be considered a life well lived. It’s answer? A life well lived is a life lived, a life full of memories, a life distinct from the life of others. The film may seem slow or inconclusive, but it’s the arbitrary parts of a day that often go unnoticed that can have a long lasting effect on our way of living that is highlighted elegantly through the lens of this film, with the help of some jazz music, captivating, cinematography and some comedy.