A Coffee in Berlin
A Long Day’s Journey into Night
Jan Ole Gerster’s A Coffee in Berlin takes the audience on a young man’s search for meaning – and an ever elusive cup of plain, black brew.
By Karsten Kastelan
When A Coffee in Berlin premiered at the Munich International Film festival in July 2012, it was met with some bewilderment by the mostly Bavarian audience. Many did not seem to “get” the film, which veers effortlessly between comedy and utterly tender moments of longing and sadness.
But there is another possible explanation as to why many citizens of the clean, efficient, and expensive southern part of Germany did not immediately embrace this film, which chronicles a young slacker’s eventful day in Germany’s capital: it is very typical of the city it was shot in, its people, its rhythms. Berlin is not like other European capitals. It is (even today) comparatively cheap to live in. It’s quite vibrant, but moves along at a leisurely pace. And all the little things that would drive a proper Bavarian up the wall, like non-functioning vending machines, graffiti, ludicrously serious off-theatre performances, and bars where German is rarely spoken or understood, are met here with Prussian stoicism.
A Coffee in Berlin begins with Niko Fischer (Tom Schilling) casually breaking up with his girlfriend (Katharina Schüttler) without telling her. He declines her sweet, but rather desperate offer of a cup of coffee – which he will regret, as he’ll spend the rest of his day trying to get some much needed caffeine. He does not yet know what fate has in store for him, which will be a handful. He’ll flunk the mandatory psychological evaluation for getting his license back after a DUI, run into a former schoolmate (Friederike Kempter), whom he treated cruelly in the past and who will enact a form of therapeutic revenge sex on him later. He will go to a movie set filled with fake Nazis. His father (Ulrich Noethen) will cut him off financially. And he will run into an odd assortment of typical Berliners: a neurotic theatre director (Steffen Jürgens), an alcohol-fueled, violent Berlin-youth (Frederick Lau), an overzealous ticket inspector (RP Kahl), and a sad, sweet old man (Michael Gwisdek) who forlornly recounts the day his father told him to throw a stone through the window of a Jewish store.
All of this, shot in beautiful black-and-white and supported by an at times jazzy, at times classically minimalist piano-score, evokes a multitude of emotions. A Coffee in Berlin can be hysterically funny at times, but this mostly comes in the form of Fremdschämen, the vicarious embarrassment one feels when other people do things very badly. And there will be a lot of that because Murphy’s Law is very much in play here. Whatever can go wrong, will go wrong – like dropping a few Euros into a beggar’s donation cup, only to find out that your bank account is overdrawn and then trying to retrieve your last few morsels of cash. Or coming late to the opening of a play, only to have to navigate the tightly spaced seats under disapproving glances. Or finding out that the fat girl you made fun of in high school tried to commit suicide because of your constant teasing.
But there are also the aforementioned tender moments. When a friend drags Niko to a drug-dealer’s apartment, he spends some time with the young entrepreneur’s senile grandmother (Lis Büttner) who is completely oblivious to her grandson’s endeavors and is perfectly content with her life. It is in those moments that one realizes that A Coffee in Berlin aims (and succeeds) at being much more than a travelogue or a comedy about the peculiarities of the German capital’s inhabitants. It is a film about the human condition; our fears, longings, and the feeble efforts we make each day to navigate our daily lives.
This only works because of Gerster’s uniquely observant screenplay, Philipp Kirsamer’s haunting black-and-white cinematography (which turns even the most familiar street into a uniquely cinematic setting), and Anja Siemens’ painstaking editing, which gives the film and its audience ample room to breathe and occasionally self-reflect. Not to forget the eclectic cast, which mixes young actors, then at the beginning of their careers, with seasoned veterans. A Coffee in Berlin marks Tom Schilling’s transition into a star with his quiet performance of a lost soul that has since placed him on top of every producer’s wish list.
So when Nico finally manages to procures his coffee in Berlin, we don’t really know what his future will hold. He probably doesn’t either. But we wish him well – since his crazy journey through this unpredictable German metropolis is far from over.
Author© Karsten Kastelan
Karsten Kastelan has been a Berlin-based correspondent for a variety of news-outlets since 1991, which have included The Hollywood Reporter, Screen International, Moving Pictures, and Die Welt. He has served as a jury member at the London, Dubai, Munich, Cairo and Palm Springs film festivals, among others.