A Life in a Day, by Rita Cannon
A Coffee In Berlin is shot in black and white, and takes place over the course of a single day in the life of an unemployed young man named Niko. Its modest scope and low-key visual style create a weird, but pleasant, sense of being let in on the story of a pivotal day in Niko’s life, while still being kept a little at a distance – intimacy without immediacy. It feels less like we’re experiencing the day alongside Niko, and more like we’re accessing his own memory of it.
Played with charm and tenderness by Tom Schilling, Niko seems pretty comfortable with his aimless life when we first meet him. Despite being a living pile of bad decisions (he dropped out of law school two years ago without telling his parents, and is currently without a drivers’ license because of several DUIs), he loiters blithely around Berlin with his out-of-work actor buddy Matze, seemingly unworried about whether the life he’s living is sustainable. It takes a series of charged encounters with neighbors, strangers, his father, and a woman from his past to make Niko realize he might need to change his behavior.
The film has been compared a lot to last year’s Frances Ha, and it’s easy to see why – they’re both black-and-white, tragicomic odes to an aimless drifter’s dawning awareness that they can’t continue to drift forever. But while Frances Ha took place over months, Berlin confines its main character’s epiphany to one crazy day. The conceit is mostly effective, but there are a handful of times where the script starts to strain, leaving Niko’s encounters feeling less like real conversations and more like teachable moments arranged by a guardian angel. The worst offender is Niko’s chance meeting with an elderly man who has vivid memories of living under Nazi rule. (Spoiler alert, I guess: You know that thing that tends to happen to old people in movies right after a young protagonist has learned something important from them? That happens, and it’s as sappy and manipulative as you’d expect.)
Fortunately, most of the vignettes that make up A Coffee In Berlin are considerably more nuanced than that one. The most effective show Niko struggling to deal with another person’s loneliness and need for human connection. An early scene has Niko awkwardly striking up conversation with a new neighbor, only to be blindsided by the neighbor’s sudden outburst of grief over his cancer-stricken wife, at which Niko can do little more than stare dumbly. Later on, he has a surprisingly sweet interaction with the grandmother of his drug dealer. Like the neighbor, the old woman is clearly immensely lonely and just wants to talk to someone, and it’s heartwarming to watch Niko connect with her in a way he was incapable of doing only hours before. Scenes like these go a long way towards selling the idea that this one day is a turning point in Niko’s life. Even if it occasionally veers toward the heavy-handed, the more delicate scenes, as well as a great lead performance from Schilling, make A Coffee In Berlin a compelling coming-of-age story.