It is not unusual for a young filmmaker to lean heavily on his influences. In A Coffee in Berlin (by first-time German director Jan Ole Gerster), the black-and-white cinematography, jazz score, and urban landscape will draw comparisons to early Woody Allen. Gerster’s lead character is a neurotic urbanite like many of Allen’s heroes, while his best friend recites a speech from Taxi Driver verbatim.
It may seem brazen for a debut filmmaker to compare himself to such greats, but the comparison is a useful shorthand that illuminates Gerster’s themes: Like Allen and Scorsese, Gerster is a chronicler of urban life, and over the course of his deceptively profound debut film, he proves contemporary Berlin just as ripe for cinematic exploration as New York was in the ’70s.
Much like his idols, Gerster has painted a portrait of a city through a character. A Coffee in Berlin follows Niko (Tom Schilling), a young, unremarkable Berliner struggling to find his path in life (and some coffee, while he’s at it). After starting his day by breaking up with his girlfriend, he sets out to buy a cup of joe but doesn’t have enough pocket change to buy the gourmet, expensive brew that dominates the city. Thus begins a strange day that morphs into a long, dark night of the soul.
Niko drifts through the streets, encountering an eccentric cast of characters that provide a compelling snapshot of a city in transition. Among others, there is the talented, aging actor whose standards are so high, he’s never taken a part; a former grade school victim of Niko’s bullying now seeking romantic redemption; and an elderly man who—in the film’s most important scene—hauntingly recalls the events of Nov. 9, 1938, otherwise known as Kristallnacht.
For a first-time director, Gerster displays patience and confidence beyond his years. The film reveals itself to its audience slowly and without fanfare; the early scenes are slight but amiable, hinting at a coming-of-age story that echoes the early work of Richard Linklater or Noah Baumbach. Niko’s slacker lifestyle seems very American and, combined with the aforementioned nods to Allen and Scorsese, points to a somewhat banal love-letter to American movies.
But eventually, a more profound experience emerges that is specific to Germany. Niko, at a crossroads between his past and his future, is a fine metaphor for the city itself, but he also acts as a vessel through which we can absorb Berlin’s culture and people. A recurring theme is the clash between the older generation that still bears the scars of Nazi Germany and the city’s younger, more aimless denizens. What emerges from the din of personalities is an honest and ultimately hopeful portrait of a city, and even a nation, that is gradually reconciling its complicated history with its ambiguous present. The film probes deep into the soul of Berlin, asking questions more befitting an old master than a rookie filmmaker. Unlike the complex city he has so lovingly profiled, Gerster’s path forward seems certain.