Shot in crisp black and white, featuring a recurring jazz-band score, and following the unproductive pursuits of a stubborn schlemiel, Jan Ole Gerster’s A Coffee in Berlin announces its homage to Manhattan from the start. It opens with a short scene between Niko (Tom Schilling) and his soon-to-be ex-girlfriend as each of them silently acknowledges the relationship has come to a close. A college dropout that’s been “thinking” for the better part of two years while continuing to siphon funds from his businessman father, Niko talks to his psychiatrist, blunders around Berlin, and winds up in rather one-sided conversations with men who want to pour their hearts out to the young lad. He’s got a friend named Matze (Marc Hosemann), who likes to make Taxi Driver references while driving around the city, but it’s not until he runs into an old friend, Julika (Friederike Kempter), that his wanderings start to attain much meaning or direction.
Ole Gerster seems infatuated with Niko, but to little avail beyond reveling in his aimless despair. This is contrary to a film such as Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha, which is cannily perceptive about its lead’s angsts and hang-ups. Take two similar scenes from each film involving the protagonists failing to pay for an order. In Baumbach’s film, Frances runs to an ATM and laments the screen that informs her she will have to pay a small service fee, withdrawing the money nonetheless. The scene reveals that director Noah Baumbach is acutely aware of the bruising effect even a small charge will have to her bank account. Here, Niko goes to an ATM to pay for a coffee and the machine simply eats his card, causing him to give up in frustration. In this way, Ole Gerster provides nothing more than hardship upon hardship for Niko’s already pathetic situation.
The film is at its most compelling during a late sequence in which Julika steps in for Niko to tell off an obnoxious threesome of teenagers, who offer her 10 euros to “show us your tits.” Niko, effete and timid, can barely muster a word, but Julika, so articulate and forceful, scares them away. Then, while on the verge of sex, Niko abstains, commenting on how “weird” the situation feels to him. Julika is stunned and disgusted, assuring him that “people line up to fuck me,” which prompts Niko to leave and go stew in his anguish at a nameless bar. The gender dynamics here are fascinating, nuanced, and comparable to the unforgettable episode of Louie where Louie verbally diffuses a threatening teenager, only to have his date claim his passive behavior as a turn-off. Ole Gerster verges on such complexities with Niko, but makes a fundamental error in neglecting to impart the reasoning for Niko’s trepidation. It’s clear that Louie thinks he’s acting in a mature manner, only to realize theory and practice don’t always overlap when it comes to attraction. It’s unclear why Niko rejects Julika, and it’s because of that uncertainty, and throughout much of A Coffee in Berlin, that the film seldomly manages a convincing case for itself as a meaningful examination of relationship mores or philosophical inquiry.