So goes “A Coffee in Berlin,” Jan Ole Gerster’s German indie film, which was released Friday in the United States. It tells the story of quiet, unassuming Niko Fischer (Tom Schilling). He has quit law school, broken up with his girlfriend, been deemed “emotionally unstable” and, quite frankly, just wants a cup of coffee. But the city of Berlin has other ideas for him.
From a chance meeting with a young woman (Friederike Kempter) he used to bully in high school to an odd encounter with a drunk, elderly fellow (Michael Gwisdek) at a bar, Niko drifts around Germany’s capital aimlessly, attending an absurd yet hilarious performance art show and playing golf, much to his chagrin, with his father at a country club.
“Berlin was (my) first destination when I moved out from home,” Gerster said of the movie’s setting in an email. “Berlin was at this time a wonderful place. You could still feel the subversive energy of the post-reunification years … Berlin will always be a special place for me even if the cityscape has changed a lot over the years.”
This cityscape is set to a snappy jazz soundtrack and done entirely in black and white in the film, invoking an old-school nostalgia reminiscent of Woody Allen circa “Manhattan.” Yet it is the themes the film brings to the surface, rather than their presentation, that remain significant.
Our generation — whether in America or in Germany — has been called names: lazy, self-centered, superficial and entitled. And this film acknowledges that. Niko, at 27 years old, relies on his father to pay his rent. He doesn’t have a job — nor does he seem to be trying to get one. He is not grateful for his presumably privileged lot in life. Yet you cannot blame him entirely.
In a scene in which Niko tries to speak to his father (Ulrich Noethen), his dad criticizes his son’s golfing technique and doesn’t try to connect with him on any level. It begs the question: Is Niko as detached from the world as he is because of this disjointed relationship? In another scene, a strange neighbor (Justus von Dohnanyi) cries to an aloof Niko about the fact that he cannot have sex with his wife because of her mastectomy. It all comes together quite easily. If our generation has had it all handed over in a silver platter, then Niko’s father’s generation is unreasonable, equally as detached and quite self-absorbed.
Gerster reflects on this generational connection by adding yet another dimension to the film — the introduction of the Nazi-era generation. Niko’s friend Matze (Marc Hosemann) tries out for a role in a movie about World War II, a movie in which a German soldier falls in love with a young Jewish girl and aims to save her. The previously mentioned elderly man at the bar anxiously tells Niko about his indirect involvement with Kristallnacht as a child; teary-eyed and distant, he clearly seems to have not been able to clear his guilty conscience, even after more than 75 years.
“The Germans sometimes seem … obsessed when it comes to working up their own history,” Gerster said. “The rehabilitation process is in full swing and part of everyday life in Germany … I believe (‘A Coffee in Berlin’) is a way to add something new to the ongoing German search for identity, by telling it casually … I believe that the present generation is self-confident and represents a new and modern Germany.”
In this way, Gerster seamlessly weaves together generations. He doesn’t point fingers. He doesn’t blame. He simply observes in a witty and remarkably unforced fashion. Just as the older generation tries to come to terms with its Nazi-era past, the younger generation tries to come to terms with what it has been given — a pitiful economy, an incoherent political sphere and a very confusing social realm in which irony reigns. “A Coffee in Berlin” is affable and quirky. Its journey for a cup of kaffee is more than that — it’s a journey for redemption and hope in a drifting, modern world.
“A Coffee in Berlin” opened Friday at Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley.
Addy Bhasin is the assistant arts editor. Contact her at [email protected].