Imagine if Louie were a feature film about a listless, entitled German man-child, conceived by someone who has seen every Woody Allen movie, and watched none of them closely enough. That, more or less, is the formula for Jan Ole Gerster’s A Coffee In Berlin, a fun but frustratingly didactic look at the torpor of people tormented by the luxury of indecision. (That’s a clinical way of saying “white people problems.”)
Tom Schilling stars as Niko Fischer, a twentysomething Berliner whose life flows with the lilting gait of the jazz music that often soundtracks it. Living off the money his father sent for tuition, Niko is caught between school and the workforce, between passive and disengaged, between looking like James McAvoy and looking like Ryan Gosling. (His scrawniness tips the scales toward the former.) Essentially, the kid is just caught between; the particular polarities aren’t as important as how adrift he is between them. Recently single—but still sleeping with his ex-girlfriend—Niko can’t even bring himself to select a rigid relationship status. It isn’t that he’s especially concerned with other people’s opinions. He’s just afraid to identify as one of them.
As the film chronicles a particularly eventful day in his life, it becomes clear that Niko’s initiative is just not to become anything, lest someone judge him with impunity, like he does to everyone else. His guiding philosophy seems to be that it’s harder to hit a moving target, and easier to remain aloof when you aren’t tied to anything. Over the course of 85 meandering minutes, A Coffee In Berlin slowly chips away at the ironic distance Niko maintains between himself and the rest of the world, teaching the young man that numbness isn’t the same thing as self-actualization.
Gerster’s film is desperately overdetermined to sell a trajectory of happenstance, but once the transparent machinations of its various episodes become clear, it becomes difficult to see Niko’s journey as anything more than a winding water-slide of teachable moments, with every twist and turn designed with mathematical precision to funnel him out of his own head. Shot on the RED camera in gorgeous, admirably textured black and white, the film finds Berlin once again defined by its stark contrasts and divides.
With each incidental encounter, and with the introduction of each counterproductively eccentric supporting character, A Coffee In Berlin bends the city and everyone in it toward Niko’s development. There’s the Nazi-costumed actor who gets lost in his character while telling Niko about his latest role, the crass upstairs neighbor who inhales his wife’s cooking as he cries about her double mastectomy (“They took her whole rack!”), the former grade-school classmate who has apparently emerged from baby fat to be an attractive performance artist, and the list goes on. None of them are well-formed characters, and it’s hard to understand why Niko should see them as such. They aren’t people so much as obelisks of cringe comedy, obvious opportunities for droll humor whom the audience is encouraged to laugh at, and Niko is correct to see through.
This is ostensibly a film about a guy who’s paralyzed by his own hyper-awareness, but the way it unfolds makes it feel like he might as well be the star of The Truman Show, the oblivious center of a massive communal effort. It would be an interesting dilemma, except that accepting the film on its own terms requires viewers to embrace the same egocentrism that it’s urging Niko to transcend. Even the camera is complicit here: While every scene is handsomely shot, Gerster’s compositions are so in sync with Schilling’s performance that the camera might as well be Niko’s mood ring, chasing him when he’s excited, and affirming his lethargy with locked-off wide shots when he isn’t. The approach doesn’t merely backfire, it produces a devastating dissonance from which A Coffee In Berlin can never recover. The film endorses Niko’s maturation by validating the worldview it’s encouraging him to abandon.
Sporadically amusing and sprinkled with a fine silt of truth that helps elevate Niko above the movie around him, A Coffee In Berlin is at its best when it rolls up the blueprints and lets its hero figure things out for himself. Even during the film’s most calculated scenes, Schilling is able to wrest a few moments away from the material, restoring Gerster’s story with the presentness that inspired him to tell it. Most interesting, however, are the occasional asides where the film extrapolates Niko’s nascent agency into a portrait of national culpability. The climactic sequence might be Gerster’s most didactic, but it still memorably traces how quick people can be to sacrifice happiness at the altar of shame. (This portion of the movie is perhaps the best—and only—way to explain how it swept the German Film Awards in 2013.)
Niko exists to refute the idea that it isn’t worth being anything at all if you can’t be something great. He ultimately manages to make a convincing case, but the enduring lesson here is that a good approach to life isn’t always a great approach to filming it.