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Sunday, July 13, 2014

Review: A Coffee in Berlin

Having won a tremendous amount of awards in its German theatrical run, A Coffee in Berlin has quite a reputation to live up to. Jan Ole Gerster's debut film has drawn comparisons to early Woody Allen, and its not hard to see why. Shot in a deliciously foggy black and white, with a pseudo dixie-land jazz score, the story of Niko (Tom Schilling), a university drop-out who has yet to tell his father that he's prematurely ended his education, is imbued with some of the loveable loser qualities that define a typical Allen protagonist, and a strong twist of Holden Caulfield.

Niko's A Catcher in the Rye style disillusionment is actually the main driver of the plot found here. Niko doesn't know what to do with himself now that he's out of school, he simply wanted the time to think. But in this one particular day that is our focus, he never gets that opportunity, be it through interruption by his new neighbor wanting to come over and tell him about his wife's cancer treatments, his actor friend wanting to take him to the set of another's film, or reuniting with an old classmate who Niko once made fun of for being overweight and is seeking to renew old ties. 

A Coffee in Berlin is actually a fairly cute little trifle for much of its running time. Niko is more or less a stand-in for anyone who can relate to the slacker/malcontent type and his adventures here varies and are humorous enough that they have a nice episodic quality. There's a particularly strong running gag about just how hard it is for him to get a cup of coffee, no matter where he turns. This strain of humor masks some inner struggle on behalf of our protagonist. With a face that's constantly stuck in a semi-frown, Niko is a bit a cipher, and as such it's hard to get a read on his musings of the activities that surround him. There's a minor undercurrent that he may be struggling with alcoholism, and that may also be a reaction to a form of depression he's entered into. When that reunited former classmate points out that Niko isn't as decisive and confident as he once was, we get a sense of just what might actually be at work. But, the film is only so interested in these deeper struggles in lieu of more "on the surface", slice of life stuff.

For the most part, that more shallow view works well, until the momentum hits a roadblock at a bar when Niko enters into a bit of a non-sequitur conversation with an old drunk who he then has to take to a hospital, a forecast of his own future. This sequence is the filmmaker trying to envelop the film is somewhat more serious impulses, and instead it falls at such odds with the earlier sardonic tone that what should be a more involving and enlightening sequence, ends up sluggish and interminable. There are other moments where this dichotomy between imagery and tone is apparent, but for the brief time we spend with A Coffee in Berlin, it has enough charms to serve as an effective enough debut feature for a talent whose indebtedness to his influences are worn on the sleeve, at least through its first three-quarters.

Rating: B-

For our Atlanta readers: A Coffee in Berlin is currently playing in an exclusive engagement at Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.
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