1.Niko Fischer (Tom Schilling) in A Coffee in Berlin. Courtesy of Music Box Films.

Niko Fischer (Tom Schilling) in A Coffee in Berlin. Photo courtesy of Music Box Films.

The event that plunged humankind into World War I — the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria — took place exactly 100 years ago, on June 28, 1914. While the outbreak of the Great War may seem unrelated to Jan Ole Gerster’s featherlight black and white debut, A Coffee in Berlin (originally titled Oh Boy!), there are a few reasons why the two can be mentioned in the same breath.

Both World Wars, the second of which permeates the film in a number of curious ways, asked much of the young. Teenagers and men in their early 20s were subjected to the lacerating sensations of the frontline, while austerity, bleakness — and sometimes the dull, terrifying roar of enemy bombers — characterized life at home. But soldiers and civilians were animated by a common sense of great purpose.

Life in modern Berlin is, needless to say, quite different. Like any thriving European commercial and cultural hub in the 21st century, Berlin bears no resemblance to its ravaged, depressed wartime self. But this makes no difference to Niko (Tom Schilling), the bumbling, empty-pocketed protagonist in A Coffee in Berlin. It’s not that his is a life of squalor and indigence — and it’s certainly not in any sense dangerous — it’s just a plodding, self-imposed grind. His efforts to navigate a tedious slog through joblessness and triviality make up the story, and it’s an oddly compelling one.

Niko’s plight calls to mind Tyler Durden’s rousing (is that the right word?) speech in David Fincher’s 1999 classic, Fight Club (based on the book by Chuck Palahniuk): “We’re the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War is a spiritual war. Our Great Depression…is our lives.” Niko would probably agree — but he doesn’t redress the problem by forming an underground terror militia dedicated to destroying things and fighting in basements. He does, however, continue to take his father’s money while lying about being in law school (he dropped out two years before the beginning of the film). On balance then, only mildly indictable offenses.

A Coffee in Berlin takes place in a single day. Niko is forced to confront his chronic aimlessness when his bank account is closed by his father (Ulrich Noethen), who talked to one of Niko’s former professors at a convention in Switzerland. Along the way, he must also contend with a mopey, intrusive neighbor, a crazed high school admirer and an assortment of other unsavory folks — all while conspicuously inching toward destitution and despondency. One of the funniest subplots involves a female onlooker who happens to be standing behind Niko whenever he does something antisocial (like trying to retrieve the change he just deposited in a homeless man’s cup).

Films like this — featuring an unlucky protagonist thrust into a series of bizarre and frequently awkward predicaments — aren’t exactly rare. Take the Coen brothers’ offbeat 2009 film, A Serious Man — or practically any film starring Michael Cera. These films are usually set in parallel universes where everyone is tirelessly and uniquely annoying. With a few exceptions, you’ll find the same phenomenon at work in A Coffee in Berlin.

Niko, while sometimes caustic and always detached, is a likable character. Unlike the main personalities in the aforementioned films — as well as other dramatic comedies (“dramedies”) of this kind — Niko is…cool. Other characters in the film are drawn to him for this reason. He isn’t graceless like most Cera characters or neurotic like Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) in A Serious Man. And Schilling is completely synchronized with Niko — an almost imperceptible elevation of the eyebrows effectively expresses contempt and uneasiness, while a sideways glance betrays a convincing, fleeting moment of vulnerability. Flashes like these fill the film. If you’ve never seen a Schilling performance before, you’ll be convinced that there’s at least some overlap between actor and character. In Lost in Translation (2003), director Sofia Coppola expertly capitalized on Scarlett Johansson’s inexperience by casting her in a diffident role. The same effect seems to be at work here, but Schilling’s experience isn’t in question — he’s been acting since he was 12 years old — it’s just an impeccable casting decision and a brilliant performance.

Philipp Kirsamer’s cinematography is also noteworthy. Shot in black and white, A Coffee in Berlin features vibrant montages of the city — the film is described by its creators as a “love letter to Berlin” — vibrating to an airy jazz soundtrack (original compositions by Cherilyn MacNeil and The Major Minors). There are great visual contrasts throughout, such as images of nondescript apartments, rolling fields, suffusions of graffiti on concrete walls and landmarks like the Fernsehturm. Many comparisons have been drawn between A Coffee in Berlin and Woody Allen’s early work — particularly Manhattan — because it showcases the director’s city so genuinely and enthusiastically.

Unfortunately, this low-budget German indie — most of which is a confident, competent stride into prominence for Gerster (defeating the $102 million juggernaut Cloud Atlas at last year’s Lola awards, Germany’s version of the Oscars) — takes the occasional misstep. While the narrative is, for the most part, attractively unconstrained (giving Nico’s problems and introspection a more authentic feel), it sometimes unravels. In one strange sequence, Nico finds himself befriending a random old woman and taking her massage chair for a spin. If this was supposed to demonstrate his warmth or personal development, it was difficult to tell how.

In another flawed scene, Julika (Friederike Kempter) — an acquaintance of Nico’s from high school, who he used to call “Roly Poly Julia” (she was once fat) — rebukes a gang of teenage drunks in the street for harassing her. In what was haplessly portrayed as an acerbic, devastating assault on the leader of the group, she spouts a monologue of banal accusations — everything from crude speculation about his alcoholic parents to the likelihood he was abused as a child. Moments of witless literal-mindedness are rare in the film, but this one was particularly egregious. The subsequent sequence has Nico discovering that Julika only wants to have sex with him in retribution for his cruelty in high school — a superbly written and acted scene.

So what does global warfare have to do with A Coffee in Berlin?

The memory of World War II is a pensive — and sometimes hilarious — backdrop for the film. One of Nico’s adventures involves a detour with his friend Matze (Marc Hosemann) to the set of a film. Matze’s friend is playing a Nazi officer who fell in love with a Jewish woman before the outbreak of war (the officer was once a “sensitive writer” and she, a bookseller). As he’s relaying the plot, it becomes increasingly obvious that the film is hopelessly saccharine and contrived, but Matze’s friend continues to describe it with frenzied excitement. One exceptionally funny moment comes when the actor — dressed in full Nazi regalia — says, “And at the very last moment, he makes a decision and saves her from…” Then there’s a lengthy, excruciating pause as he grasps for the right word before Niko intervenes, “Deportation,” he says. The ridiculous euphemism is heartily accepted by the actor, who replies, “Deportation, thanks.” When Nico steps outside for a cigarette, a young German soldier and an old Jewish victim — yellow star pinned to his overcoat — are having a smoke together.

These scenes are indicative of the seeming meaningless that can characterize life when there is, “No Great War” and “No Great Depression,” as Tyler Durden succinctly put it. In the desultory comfort of Nico’s life, the pivotal moral struggle of the 20th century is reduced to sentimental background noise. That is, until he walks into a bar near the end of the film. Seconds after he sits down, an old man begins to pester him. After a few sharp rejections, he finally lets the old man tell him a story. It ends with a harrowing tale about Kristallnacht. After admitting that his father threw a stone through the window of the very bar they’re sitting in, the old man says, “I still remember clearly that at one point I started to weep. Now, guess why? Because I thought that, with all the broken glass, I couldn’t ride my bike anymore.”

With this scene, A Coffee in Berlin risks descending into the moist affectation it ridicules, but it manages to sail just clear of such hypocrisy. The old man’s story is modest and believable — and it’s analogous to Nico’s situation. He spends too much time in a small, conceited world of his own construction, oblivious to the higher realities — and pleasures — of life. Just as the old man didn’t appreciate the significance of the glass on the street, Nico has yet to discover the significance of his life. The British philosopher A.C. Grayling is fond of saying, “The meaning of life is what we make it.” And while this may sound platitudinous, it contains a good deal of truth — something Nico is only beginning to discover — with plenty of humor and style along the way.

Rating: 3 out of 4 stars

“A Coffee in Berlin” is currently playing in select cities nationwide. For a full list of showtimes and cities, please click here.

Video courtesy of Music Box Films.

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