Tuesday, June 10, 2014

A Coffee in Berlin: A German Slacker Needs Caffeine

There used to be a pleasant place just north of Union Square called Java & Jazz, whose closing is still lamented. Niko Fischer could use a cafĂ© like that in Berlin. While it is not clear whether he would groove to the film’s non-diegetic jazz score, he could really use the caffeine. Instead, he encounters some awkward personal and national history as he slacks around town in Jan Ole Gerster’s A Coffee in Berlin (formerly known as Oh Boy, trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

You have to be relatively likable to amble aimlessly through life with relatively few consequences. Unfortunately, Fischer’s luck might have finally run out. He is having a slight problem with his bank card this morning. Hopefully, his old school old man will sort it out in the afternoon. Until then, he plans to just knock about with his unemployed actor chum.

Like the Spanish Inquisition, he never expected to encounter a former classmate, especially Julika Hoffmann. She was once the overweight girl in class, whom Fischer constantly teased—but not anyore. Despite his attraction, Fischer is hesitant to revisit his past. Nevertheless, he reluctantly agrees to attend the opening of her avant-garde theater whatever later that evening. Of course, that still leaves him plenty of time to underachieve before then.

This probably sounds agonizingly painful to watch, but Gerster’s up-tempo, yet laudably understated execution goes quite a long ways. Frankly, it is not an ode to slackerdom, but a gentle rebuke to the Facebook Generation, suggesting maybe they should start growing up, getting jobs, and leveling their karma as best they can.  The distinctive soundtrack from the Major Minors also works wonders. Mostly arrangements for trumpet and rhythm section with a few piano solos tossed in, the vibe spans polite small group swing from the Bobby Hackett bag to lyrical mute work reminiscent of Prestige-era Miles. That’s all good and it goes with Philipp Kirsamer’s stylish black-and-white cinematography like biscotti and a warm cup of Joe.

The performances are generally good to very good, as well. In fact, Friederike Kempter is terrific as the increasingly complicated and baggage-laden Hoffmann. Tom Schilling does his best not to try our patience as the perpetually irresponsible Fischer, nicely pulling off his third act tipping point. However, Michael Gwisdek really delivers the film’s knock-out punch as a small but pivotal character, whose significance would be spoilery to explain.

Coffee is deceptively light on its feet, ultimately addressing Germany’s grim Twentieth Century history in ways that are surprising, yet never feel forced. It is way better than one might expect, in large measure because it is far less quirky and amusing than it initially appears. It also looks and sounds great. Recommended for those who appreciate highly idiosyncratic personal dramas, A Coffee in Berlin opens this Friday (6/13) in New York at the Landmark Sunshine.