It was told to me, that after last month, I’ll have been out of college for longer than I was ever in it. This shocking fact almost caused me physical pain. It’s been more than four years since I graduated college, and I don’t have much, if anything, tangible to show of my “progress” or accomplishments. I take solace in the fact that I’m not alone, that across the country, and clearly, after watching A Coffee In Berlin, across the world, many my age lead the same kind of directionless existence, searching for meaning and answers in a universe that has none.
A Coffee In Berlin (or “Oh Boy” as it was originally titled) depicts an everything-goes-wrong absurdist tragicomic tale of a man leading such a life. Meet Niko Fischer (Tom Schilling), a young man who’s dropped out of law school, dropped out of his relationship with his girlfriend Elli (Katharina Schuttler) and as his bombastic, vile (yet correct) father points out, drops out of everything.
Over the course of a day in this beautiful, black and white depiction of modern day Berlin, we learn how lonely and aimless Niko Fischer is, paralleling the false starts of Generation Y, while also pointing out how we can all have it worse. This is Slacker with subtitles, a soulful jazz soundtrack and a winking sense of humor.
Niko Fischer must deal with bureaucracy, failing an “idiot test” to get his driver’s license back after he was caught driving under the influence. We don’t feel sorry for him, since he deserved to lose his driving privileges, but imagine having to take a psych test from a crazy, jackass psychologist if you ever run afoul of traffic violations, and you’ll quickly empathize with Niko’s plight.
Throughout the day, Niko can’t get what is probably the easiest thing to find in any metropolitan city: a cup of coffee. But that’s precisely the point. He can’t afford one, the coffee machine is out of order, it’s being cleaned, the warmer is empty, etc. It’s a comedy of errors, just like Niko’s life.
His only friend is Matze (Marc Hosemann), an older man who quotes Taxi Driver, while also essentially being Niko’s taxi driver. He’s an actor, but he hasn’t ever worked, because he’s waiting for the right role, like all of us. We’re waiting for the right job, a sign, a reason to get out of bed. When Niko’s father (rightfully) demands an explanation for what his son has been doing for the past two years since dropping out of school, Niko merely responds that he’s been “thinking.” You can imagine how that goes over. It’s a testament to Jan Ole Gerster’s visionary film that I want to hit Niko with a golf club, while simultaneously knowing exactly what he means.
My generation is filled with self-absorbed over-thinkers, constantly deliberating their next move, paralyzed to inaction. Once we finally make a decision, we instantly regret it, analyzing it over and over like we’re the central character in a soapy melodrama, wishing we had taken the other fork in the road, bemoaning our existence on social media. It’s not that dire, silly or universal a problem, but that’s sometimes how it feels, and that apathetic attitude is draped over this entire film.
A Coffee In Berlin is quick to point out that nobody has figured it out. Niko’s creepy mess of a neighbor plays foosball by himself, and reveals his problems to a complete stranger within moments of meeting Niko, breaking down in tears because of his wife’s cancer (but mostly because they don’t have sex anymore). “Adults” don’t have it any better.
In fact, Niko finds more common ground with octogenarians than anyone else, bonding with his drug dealer’s grandmother in one of the weirdest scenes in a weird Jim Jarmusch-y movie. In an incredibly poignant scene in the final act, Niko meets an old philosophical drunk, who points out that the rest of the world is speaking another language. They aren’t really; he just can’t understand people anymore. This isolation and disconnect between generations, class and one another is something I venture to say we’ve all felt, and is only more heartbreaking coming from a man drinking his last scotch.
A Coffee In Berlin is funny, uncomfortable, insane, heartbreaking and frustrating, just like life. There’s little wonder A Coffee In Berlin won the Germany Academy Award for Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Director, the Triple Crown of movie-dom.
For the entire film, I felt as if I knew Tom Schilling, the tremendous understated lead actor, from somewhere. He reminded me of someone I met while backpacking, someone I had shared a drink with perhaps? That certainly could be true, albeit unlikely, but by the end of the film, I realized what I recognized in Schilling was myself. My doubts and fears staring back at me, forced to come to grips with the quiet, empty streets of the world, finally finding comfort in that elusive cup of coffee and the dawn of a new day, in Berlin, LA, Seattle, or wherever you may find yourself.