Home Video Hovel: A Coffee in Berlin, by Aaron Pinkston
Niko is a young man having a real hard time of things. He’s on the outs with his serious girlfriend, is flat-out broke, and can’t seem to find a good cup of coffee anywhere. After his wealthy father finds out Niko dropped out of law school, his meal ticket is cut off as an opportunity to finally get his act together. There are many films about listless youth searching for happiness and success without really working for it, but A Coffee in Berlin is a particularly good version of the story. Anchored by a breakout performance and a witty script, the film is an effortlessly entertaining stroll through the German capital.
A Coffee in Berlin is isolated over the course of one day, a particularly important day in Niko’s development, but is kept pretty free-form. We follow Niko throughout the events of his modest day, with each encounter ending in varying degrees of disaster. Even when there seems to be a shining moment of optimism, Niko’s personality or cruel, random fate keep him from any happiness. He sulks through his malaise, but the film’s tone is kept lightly comedic, thankfully keeping itself from miserablism. There really isn’t much structure to the plot as an episodic collection of events only grouped by the limited timeframe of the story. Each major scene lives like a short film, standing alone without any real narrative or character build, but its consistent game of nothing working out makes this a worthwhile and enjoyable exercise.
There are a few moments of catharsis, most notably in the ending setpiece, but there is enough open in the ending to wonder how the central character has changed or if he will allow himself to change. Strangely, the film’s final moment, where Niko finally sits down for a fresh cup of the title beverage, adds a touch of hopefulness. This moment is unassuming without context, but is a wonderfully simple capper to the film’s running gag of Niko unsuccessfully getting a cup through a creative variety of means. This joke is a nice encapsulation of the film as a cleverly simple story with a loaded amount of unexpected emotional resonance.
Being such a small film, A Coffee in Berlin’s lead performance is critical. Tom Schilling, who may be in every frame of the film as Niko, excels in this unassumingly difficult performance. His best quality is being able to pull off the balance of being an inherently likeable character while also a bit of a jerk who deserves all this misfortune he is being dealt. Schilling is young and feels young without feeling particularly youthful — this is a strange character trait, but works for the lost, socially stunted man. The role asks for almost constant internalization, and Schilling always seems to be working things out without caring to carry anything out. Schilling has had a number of on-screen credits in German films, but this should be a breakout to bigger projects.
Released by Music Box Films, A Coffee in Berlin’s new Blu-ray offers a great deal of special features for such a small film. Included are deleted scenes, outtakes, a featurette on the film’s wonderful jazz score, casting tapes and a profile on Tom Schilling’s improvisation in the film. The highlight of the special features, though, is a 40-minute conversation between filmmaker Jan Ole Gerster and film critic Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, shot at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago, which I am coincidentally very familiar with. The interview/conversation covers a number of topics related to A Coffee in Berlin, including the use of black-and-white photography and how much of the film is autobiographical. Personally, I’ve always like Vishnevetsky, and he shows his smart insights of the film and asks great questions to its filmmaker. The segment’s tone, like the film itself, is light yet insightful. It is also well produced, cut with scenes from the film, becoming a nice stand-in for a director’s commentary.