Jan Ole Gerster’s “Oh Boy” The Long Road to Sympathy

Tom Schillig as Niko in “Oh Boy”.
Tom Schillig as Niko in “Oh Boy”. | Photo (detail): © Xverleih

Over the decades, cinema has again and again succeeded in making captivating comedies out of complete idleness, from Charlie Chaplin‘s Tramp and Federico Fellini‘s “Vitelloni” to the layabouts in Schwabing comedies such as “Zur Sache, Schätzchen”. It has done so particularly when there is implicit and usually temporary refusal to be actively acquisitive in any way.

Young Berliner Niko Fischer comes into this category. A law school drop-out, he just lives a day at a time, observing people in the city from a distance and drifting along. Perhaps he is waiting for life to come to him in some convincing way, without him doing anything. That could take a long time.

Between grey and clear

But everything changes with 24 hours of great losses. In the morning, Niko gets out of his girlfriend’s bed and makes up some story to avoid seeing her in the evening. He arrives just in time for a court summons for drinking and driving. The psychologist’s questions sound funny, but the man is used to making treacherous allegations. Niko loses his driving licence. Shortly afterwards, a cashpoint retains his EC card. It looks like life is becoming a bit less comfortable. A neighbour calls at Niko’s apartment – an almost symbolic place of carefree temporariness, asks stupid questions and imposes on him by crying and moaning about his problems. Niko does not want to know. The last thing he wants is involvement of any kind.

Even the light in this film seems to waver between being grey and clear until, at the end of a long night, a veil appears to dissolve. In a car, Niko’s friend Matze complains angrily about Berlin: “Someone ought to clean up this city!” Niko immediately recognises the Taxi Driver quotation. Young filmmaker Jan Ole Gerster also seems well acquainted with Martin Scorsese’s oeuvre. Oh Boy‘s episodic structure is particularly reminiscent of After Hours, another film, in which a young man drifts along through a number of episodes without ever really getting involved and which ends after a long night.

Lack of perspectives

Julika turns up at a pub. Niko can hardly remember her. She tells him that she had a crush on him when they were at school and invites him to come to a theatre art performance, an evening that leaves the young man feeling rather baffled. Matze takes Niko along to a film set where a melodrama about the Nazi period is being filmed; the story sounds bombastic. In “art”, as he experiences it here, Niko can find no perspective and no reason at all to look for one.

Niko clearly did not expect anything from his parents’ generation in any case, apart from a monthly allowance from his father, which stops when his father finds out that his son has long since dropped out of law school. Father and son meet at a golf course, which in Germany at least is a playground for the rich and privileged, a class to which Niko does not wish to belong, although this is something he never explicitly says. Director-scriptwriter Jan Ole Gerster chose his settings carefully, always selecting places for his characters that reveal something about them. The production’s restraint ensures that this is never done in a showy way, but tends to be incidental.

Radical and honest

As they say goodbye, Niko’s father puts a bundle of banknotes onto the table in front of the clubhouse, as if he could buy his way out of any further responsibility. They have nothing more to say to one another - they do not even argue with one another anymore. Oh Boy tells of a conflict between the generations only indirectly, by showing its absence. At such moments, this film, which is ultimately so gentle and often light-hearted is surprisingly radical and probably more honest than works in which the generations engage in open conflict. “It was not at all my intention to simply write a comedy. Probably, I think the film is more tragic than other people do. But I also think that humour helps to tell serious things.” (Jan Ole Gerster).

So Oh Boy is a film about a young man’s development, compressed into 24 hours of narrated time, in which the main impetus comes from older people. With his friend Matze, Niko visits a young drug dealer who lives with his grandmother, who is suffering from slight dementia. Niko thinks she is much more interesting than any drugs and gives the old lady a hug in parting, the film’s first genuinely tender moment. The film ends with an old man talking to Niko in a pub late at night, telling him of his childhood and of his traumatic experiences during the Nazi reign of terror. Unlike in the conversation with his neighbour, the young man is now really listening. Shortly afterwards, the old man is dead, and for the first time, Niko has not only shown feelings, but also responsibility and sympathy. At the end of a long day and long experience of small-time failure, Oh Boy tells the story of an old man’s death and of a young man stepping out into life. It is the director’s great achievement to do this in a way that is not as pathos-ridden as it may sound here.