Imagine if, instead of “Titanic” taking the day, “Good Will Hunting” had swept the Oscars the year both films were nominated. That’s basically what happened in Germany when Jan Ole Gerster’s low-budget “Oh Boy” beat “Cloud Atlas” at the Lolas last year. Here was a modest, black-and-white debut coming out of nowhere to win six of the country’s top film prizes, and to see the film is to understand why: Renamed “A Coffee in Berlin” for its long-overdue, Music Box-backed U.S. release, this day-in-the-life indie says something profound about an entire generation simply by watching a feckless young man try to figure it out.
Reminiscent of some of the most notable American voices to emerge from Sundance in the decade after “Sex, Lies and Videotape,” Gerster didn’t set out to write a story that would describe the zeitgeist. Rather, the project originated with the creation of a likable, relatable character whom audiences have found enormously easy to embrace: Niko Fischer, law-school dropout and all-around slacker, living off his father’s allowance while he passively hopes something will come along to spark his interest.
Much of Niko’s appeal owes to Tom Schilling, a former child actor, now 32, who turns a well-rounded, reasonably flawed guy coasting through his own post-college, pre-career purgatory into a compelling enough figure to follow — the way Holden Caulfield and Young Werther were in their respective epochs. Schilling is handsome in a spindly James McAvoy sort of way, his greasy hair swept to one side of a baby face he can get away with shaving once every other day.
We meet Niko on the brink of a low-energy breakup: His g.f. offers to make him coffee, and he lamely struggles to find an excuse to slink out, claiming, “I’ve got a million things to do.” In truth, Niko doesn’t have much of anything going on. Together with Vince Vaughn-like buddy Matze (Marc Hosemann), he could be the poster boy for those who’ve managed to make unemployment a full-time job: He spends far more effort avoiding having to work than most people do actually going into an office, compounded by the humiliation of constantly trying to justify his lifestyle to his father and other authority figures.
Although the tone is generally comedic, buoyed along by snatches of jazz music that give Niko’s situation a relatively carefree vibe, his situation is actually quite alarming. The business with his g.f. spells an inability to form attachment, a meeting with a psychological counselor reveals a pattern of drunk driving and so on. Generally speaking, Niko’s interactions with others — from the actor friend (Arnd Klawitter) playing a “good Nazi” in yet another World War II drama to the fat-camp survivor (Friederike Kempter) they called “Roly Poly Julia” back in grade school — reveal the sort of ironic detachment that once led Bart Simpson to quip, “We need another Vietnam to thin out their ranks a little.”
Gerster’s decision to film in black-and-white lends a melancholy romance to Niko’s various encounters, infusing even a scene where he’s seen flushing leftover meatballs down the toilet with a measure of introspection. Between humorous episodes, the helmer gives Niko time to reflect, lingering on cigarette breaks and that ongoing search for a coffee he can’t afford. (At one point, in a scene worthy of Buster Keaton, he considers nicking some change from a sleeping beggar.) While Berlin affords Niko the unique privilege of leading a reasonably comfortable life on very little money, his kind can be found all over the world, and in that respect, the film feels like a late, lost chapter from the French New Wave or a kindred spirit to so many DIY indies, served up with a wry smile and a German accent.