Combustible Celluloid
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With: Tom Schilling, Marc Hosemann, Friederike Kempter, Justus von Dohnányi, Katharina Schüttler, Arnd Klawitter, Martin Brambach, Steffen Jürgens, Michael Gwisdek
Written by: Jan-Ole Gerster
Directed by: Jan-Ole Gerster
MPAA Rating: NR
Language: German, with English subtitles
Running Time: 83
Date: 06/20/2014

A Coffee in Berlin (2014)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Love and Other Mugs

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

I'm so glad people are making black-and-white movies again. Last year, I reviewed four new black-and-white movies, and three of them made my year's ten best list (the fourth was a runner-up). Black-and-white has a whole different feel from color; it can make things seem darker, scarier, more romantic, more profound, more timeless. I wanted to see A Coffee in Berlin, I admit, partly because of the black-and-white. Yet no cinematography can make a good film great. A Coffee in Berlin is only a good film, but it does have a very good ending.

Borrowing from several quirky American comedies, the movie starts on Niko (Tom Schilling), who is about to have the worst day of his life. First thing in the morning, he loses his girlfriend; she picks up on his ambivalence toward her as he prepares to sneak out of her apartment. He tries to buy a ridiculously expensive coffee, but does not have the cash. An ATM swallows his card.

A buddy, Matze (Marc Hosemann), takes him to lunch (Matze eats, but Niko doesn't), where they run into Julika (Friederike Kempter), a pretty blonde dancer who was once a fat girl in school with Niko. Despite his youthful teasing, she always had a crush on him. She invites him to her show. The show is ridiculous, but it looks as if Niko has a chance for romance with Julika... almost.

What else? Niko and Matze visit a movie set, and the subject of the movie foreshadows the ending. A weird neighbor brings meatballs to welcome Niko to his new apartment, and winds up sobbing over his wife's breast cancer. And Niko meets with his father, who learns that Niko has dropped out of school and has simply been collecting checks; he's cut off and left on his own. Through it all, Niko cannot get his cup of coffee. Finally Niko goes to a bar where he meets a man that changes the movie significantly.

The thing that struck me about this movie is that every single character except Niko seems to have the power to say anything they want without fear of repercussion. He seems to be the only unsure person surrounded by a sea of people who know exactly who they are and what they want. It's interesting, but I'm not sure it works. It seems to be an easy way to externally shape a character that has no shape. When his father asks what he's been doing for two years, Niko replies, "thinking." Thinking is a hard thing to show visually.

But I'm recommending the movie because of writer/director Jan-Ole Gerster's fairly laid-back approach. He doesn't ramp up the anxiety, and doesn't laugh at Niko's discomfort. He's comfortable in letting Niko drift, and including scenes that are not necessarily connected. We see Niko doing nothing from time to time, which is refreshing. And then, that ending, in which Niko speaks to an older German man in a bar, casts an entirely new perspective on a movie that could have been a weightless romantic comedy; in a lesser film, Niko would have either returned to his girlfriend or ended up with Julika.

It's a wise 83 minutes, and it's a debut feature, and yet it apparently scooped up a whole bunch of German film awards.

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