Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Jul 07, 2014 2:52 pm 
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I woke up to the rest of my life, Oh boy!

If not up to the intelligence and energy level of the best new German cinema, Jan Ole Gerster's first film nonetheless is more original than at first appears and packs a hidden wallop. The focus is Nikko Fischer (baby-faced but very experienced actor Tom Schilling). A lazy, suddenly penniless "student," Nikko begins the day with his girlfriend, with whom he's spent the night. That wake-up is handsomely shot in black and white, and the morning light with the young couple on the bed in silhouette might evoke a romantic scene between Seberg and Belmondo in Godard's Breathless. The Nouvelle Vague reference is intentional, but there turns out to be little romance in the room. Nikko is uninterested in seeing Elli (Katharina Schüttler) again any time soon. Nor has he any Belmondo panache, only a desire to dodge any responsibility -- and get a cup of coffee. What follows might be a German slacker version of Joyce's Ulysses with Berlin standing in for Dublin. Remember, slacker version. The 24 hours that follow are, in those terms, surprisingly rich. Like Ulysses, this movie is a series of episodes, and they can be as intense and harsh as the ugly-beautiful black and white images.

Nikko goes to get money, but the ATM machine swallows his card. He calls his father about this problem. He will find out the reason later after dad summons him to a golf course, and humiliates him. Meanwhile he goes for coffee, a cup of which, in a somewhat overworked motif, is his never-achieved Grail.

The word introduced early on by a coffee house girl, who won't give him a cup of Colombian black without the full price, is penner. The subtitles, evidently by a Brit, render this as "dosser." Americans would say "bum." If she gave him a coffee, she'd have to give them to every penner who comes along.

This is a key word for German viewers, perhaps, because when I Googled it and and the title it popped up in a tweet by a Berliner, Peter Bijl (@bijlinberlin): Schwarz-weiss Portraet der urbanen Penner. Tollen Film. Oh Boy. "Black and white portrait of an urban bum. Great film. Oh Boy." Oh Boy, a homage to the Beatles, is the film's original "German" title. I see Nikko as a kind of picaro, a soulless, immoral wanderer, who slips by, a window through which we see events in a modern fringe Berlin. The world sees him as a bum.

The hint is that a bum may be what he's becoming. He's living in a shabby apartment he's just moved to. A neighbor (Justus von Dohnányi) appears with a pathetic story of a marriage that's gone stale and a bowl of his wife's inedible meatballs. He weeps and then suddenly walks out. At this point the film takes on a rather Kafkaesque flavor when Nikko goes to get his driving license renewed, after its being suspended for repeated cases of blood alcohol level being too high, and is examined by a strangely powerful and impulsive psychologist (Andreas Schröders) who suggests he is insecure because he's "small" and at the end of a series of outrageous insults, refuses the license renewal to Nikko, saying he's not a good bet.

Nikko is picked up by his friend Matze (Marc Hosemann), a loud, aggressive would-be actor, who has a car. They visit a movie set where a dubious WWII Nazi-themed film is being shot where a friend of Matze's (Arnd Klawitter) is playing an officer whose girlfriend is Jewish. She survives but at the end of the war it's he who becomes the pariah. The theme relates to that of Cate Shortland's recent film Lore. Matze and Nikko also run into Julika Hoffmann (Friederike Kempter), who had a crush on Nikko in school, when she was a fat girl everyone mocked. Now, thin and blonde, she invites them to an avant-garde performance.

Another grotesque episode follows, but before this, Nikko sees his father (Ulrich Noethen), who has found out he's been spending the thousand euros a month deposited in his account doing nothing, having quit studying law two years before but hidden it from the family. The game is up. His father buys them a Schnapps, drops a few hundred euros on him, and tells him to get lost. He'll have to get a job like anybody else.

More emotional stuff is to follow, with more heavy references to Germany's twentieth-century past and, perhaps, a glimmer of Nikko's starting to care about something. There is a whole series of great German actors such as Steffen Jürgens, Arnd Klawitter and von Dohnányi, a lot of views and by implication the director's (and his friend Schilling's) memories of contemporary Berlin, and a jazz sound track that cuts both against and with the action in original and memorable ways. This is a film whose accomplishment may slip by some viewers -- Rex Reed, for instance, who called it "a tedious exercise in tedium" and gave it one out of four stars. This is understandable. This began as a film school thesis. Its structure is overly compartmentalized. Its dramatic final encounter, though terrifically acted by veteran Michael Gwisdek, may be a little too vague, symbolic, and fable-like. But this seemingly offhand slacker movie "about nothing" is well shot (by Philipp Kirsamer with a RED digital camera) and well acted enough to make its own statement of perennial urban ennui. Several of the scenes here surprise you with their eloquence and emotion. When morning comes after a long night and Nikko finally gets his cup of coffee, you can almost taste it.

A Coffee in Berlin/Oh Boy, 83 mins., debuted at Karlovy, showed at Munich, Zurich, Rotterdam, Sydney and Taipei among other festivals. It opened in many countries, including France 5 June 2013 (only fair reviews: Allociné press rating 3.2), in the US 13 June 2014 (Metacritic rating 64%).

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