Thursday, June 12, 2014

Jan Ole Gerster's A COFFEE IN BERLIN proves a small, unassuming (& award-winning) knock-out

What a pleasure to discover a small, black-and-white movie that pays such high dividends on the 83 minutes you'll spend viewing it. A COFFEE IN BERLIN (originally known as Oh Boy in its native Germany) is getting a very limited release over here (for which we owe Music Box Films a debt of gratitude) and will probably not make many waves on this side of the Atlantic, even though it has already won 24 awards at festivals, in its home country, and via the European Film Awards -- from which its writer/director Jan Ole Gerster (shown below) took home the European Discovery of the Year prize).

Everything about the film is small scale (yet near perfect), from its terrific lead performance from Tom Schilling (shown below, left, of the recent Generation War), to the low-key "events" that occur along the way, to the sumptuous, absolutely scrumptious black-and-white photography that is, for my money, better even than that of the over-rated Ida, whose cinematography so screams "composed and artful" that you finally want to muddy it up a bit just to breath some life into things. The cinematography in "Coffee" (by Phillipp Kirsamer) perfectly fits around and into the world it encompasses. And then, there's the theme.

On one level A Coffee in Berlin deals with its "hero," the young man Niko Fischer, a Euro-style slacker who, according to the words of his dad (Ulrich Noethen, above, right, and recently of Hannah Arendt) has never finished anything he has started. Yet Niko is clearly a decent sort of guy who's just looking for his place in our modern world. At the same time, this movie is also dealing as much with the modern European/Western world, seen through the lens of Germany today, in which everything from wealth and class divisions to art and commerce, fear of immigration, Nazi history, and the sexuality of the "other" still prove divisive and frightening.

None of the above is baldly stated, but as you watch Niko move from incident to event to quiet thought, you cannot help but think of your own place in whatever country it is that you occupy. Herr Gerster clearly has an aware mind coupled to interests that are wide-ranging.

His little movie asks many more questions than it answers, but it asks these artfully and in a lively, non-hectoring manner. And the many subsidiary characters who help bring the film to life are quite marvelous -- beginning with the neighbor of Niko (above) who brings him a housewarming gift of his wife's meatballs to a former schoolmate of Niko's who was -- and clearly always will be, on some level -- fat but now is an attractive stage actress of sorts.

This young woman, played will great strength masking even greater fear by the talented Friederike Kempter (above) proves one of the highlights of a film that is virtually full of them. As our hero spends a day and night moving around Berlin from place to place, person to person, we see a society in which few seem to fit the way they might like and only the wealthy feel secure.

Take Niko's friend Matze -- another smart, sharp performance from Marc Hosemann (above, right, of Soul Kitchen) -- of whom we learn some surprising stuff. Or the old man in the cafe (below) who helps close out Niko's night with a brief history of his childhood under the Führer.

Our hero has spent most of the movie trying simply to get a cup of coffee, which proves more difficult than you'd think. By the finale, he is at last satisfied, on that score at least, even if his place in all this is still question-able. We're satisfied, too. You'll come away from this film thinking about it -- and your own place in things -- long after its quiet credits have rolled.

A Coffee in Berlin opens this Friday, June 13, in New York City at the Landmark Sunshine Cinema, and will hit another 18 cities in  the weeks to come. You can view all currently scheduled playdates, with cities and theaters, by clicking here, then clicking on the word THEATERS, which you'll find midway down the page.

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