Jan Ole Gerster’s debut feature, A Coffee in Berlin (originally titled Oh Boy), arrives in the U.S. riding a wave of success, having swept several major categories at the 2013 German Film Awards, where its main competition was Cloud Atlas (co-directed by Gerster’s friend Tom Tykwer).
By comparison, Gerster’s film is agreeably modest: an 85-minute, black-and-white, jazz-scored film, with a Frances Ha tone, about a day in the life of twentysomething law-school dropout Niko Fischer (Tom Schilling). Niko’s life is defined by indecision: He’s moved into a new apartment, but hasn’t unpacked his boxes yet; he’s a smoker, but he doesn’t carry a lighter (at home, he uses his toaster).
Gerster and cinematographer Philipp Kirsamer frequently frame Niko against moving vehicles — cars, buses, bikes, trains — that contrast with his own nagging stasis. Gerster structures the film around Niko’s interactions with colorful supporting characters, from his confessional neighbor (Justus von Dohnányi) to a nasty psychologist (Andreas Schröders) to Julika (Friederike Kempter), an ex-classmate now moonlighting as an interpretive dancer.
The film is at its most muddled when it uses these interactions to force historical and emotional resonance onto Niko’s story, as in a conversation with a reflective barfly (Michael Gwisdek).
Rather, Gerster and Schilling are more successful when they allow Niko’s behavior to be their main subject: A scene in which he tries to talk himself out of paying for a train ticket is a painfully sharp representation of how an intelligent, confused person can waste their cleverness on mundanities.