A Coffee in Berlin

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A Coffee Bean in Berlin

Courtesy of Music Box Films

A Coffee in Berlin aka Oh Boy Film Review

An Aryan Woody Allen?

Woody Allen is arguably the New York Jews’ poet laureate, so it’s a surprising delight to discover a similar bittersweet sensibility in German writer/director Jan Ole Gerster’s award winning feature debut, A Coffee in Berlin (originally titled Oh Boy). This dramedy stars Tom Schilling (2013’s WWII saga Generation War, which recently played at L.A.’s Nuart) as 20-something Niko Fischer, a nebbish who is a cross between Woody’s earlier screen incarnations and Jean-Pierre Leaud’s Antoine Doinel character in Francois Truffaut’s 1960s/1970s series of semi-autobiographical films. And like several of Woody’s films, notably that 1979 love letter to New York, Manhattan, Coffee is in black and white (although minus equally luminous shots of Berlin) and the soundtrack is decidedly jazzy, like many a Woodman score.

A scene near Coffee’s opening sets the stage, as Niko nearly misses an appointment with a state psychiatrist who will determine whether or not he should lose his driver’s license. (Guess how that turns out?) In this cinematic slice of life Niko is a ne’er-do-well who, in the immortal words of “Love Potion Number 9,” has “been a flop with chicks since 1956,” as well as: a fare beater who tries riding Berlin’s subway without purchasing a ticket; a law school dropout; and so on. How this unemployed layabout manages to survive by scamming his businessman father Walter (Ulrich Noethen, who played Heinrich Himmler in 2004’s Downfall) is droll, as is most of the movie.

A Bunuelian leitmotif that runs throughout A Coffee in Berlin is Niko’s thwarted repeat efforts to score a cup of java (hence the title) that is humorously reminiscent of Luis Bunuel’s 1972 The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. The scene where Niko tries to order a plain coffee in a fancy schmancy coffeehouse will strike a chord with many sick of Starbucks-like pretensions and prices. (It’s a bean, not a Picasso, for god’s sake!)

The characters Niko meets along the way are artfully drawn in vivid vignettes. Most memorable is Julika Hoffman (Frederike Kempter), a former classmate whom Niko had teased back in the day because she was overweight. But now “Roly Poly Julie” — who accidentally bumps into her former tormentor at a restaurant — is a grown-up, slim blonde actress who gives Niko comp tickets to the premiere of the new avant-garde play she co-stars in. Of course, he arrives after the curtain has been raised, and complications ensue, resulting in a clash with the pretentious playwright Phillip Rauch, wryly played by Arnd Klawitter in another perfectly cast cameo. Julika shows herself to be a complex individual who is hell-bent on overcoming a tortured adolescence ruined by Niko and other insensitive schoolmates. Kempter received a very well deserved nomination for a 2013 German Film Award for her insightful, poignant performance and is one of the best things about Coffee. Her character deserves a film all her own.

As you may recall, anti-Semitism is a recurring theme in Woody’s oeuvre, whether it’s his complaints that someone saying “Wouldn’t you?” deliberately sounds like “Wouldn’t Jew?” or Grammy Hall’s imagining of him as an ultra-religious Hassidic type of Jew in 1977’s Annie Hall. In a similar way — but with the jackboot on the other foot -ethnicity haunts Niko, who visits a WWII-era movie set where a hammy, costumed actor in a Nazi uniform greets him with a hearty “Heil Hitler.” The movie-within-a-movie’s plot revolves around the forbidden love between this German soldier and a Jewish woman.

The Hitler salute is repeated towards the end when Niko, who has a drinking problem, stumbles upon an older Aryan who recounts his childhood hard times under the Third Reich. Here, the bitter overtakes the sweet and the comedy takes a turn towards the dramatic, as Germany’s past overshadows its present. Will this encounter be a life changing moment for the lost, floundering Niko? We stereotypically think of Germans as hard working, but does Niko’s confused slacker symbolize 21st century Germany?

Those who enjoy sophisticated cinema should find A Coffee in Berlin to be their cup of tea. Coffee is being served for a week starting June 27 at L.A.’s art house cinema, the Landmark Nuart Theatre, 11272 Santa Monica Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90025; (310)473-8530. Bottoms up!

L.A.-based reviewer Ed Rampell co-authored “The Hawaii Movie and Television Book.” (See: http://hawaiimtvbook.weebly.com/.) Rampell and co-author Luis Reyes will be signing books at the Egyptian Theatre’s 10th Annual Tiki Night Sunday, June 28 at, 7:00 p.m., at 6712 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood, CA 90028. (See: http://www.americancinemathequecalendar.com/content/10th-annual-tiki-night-%E2%80%9Cplastic-paradise-a-swingin-trip-through-americas-polynesian-obsessio)  

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Ed Rampell About Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell is an L.A.-based film critic/historian and author named after Edward R. Murrow, in honor of the broadcaster's exposé of Senator Joe McCarthy. As a film critic and historian Rampell co-wrote Made in Paradise: Hollywood's Films of Hawaii and the South Seas and Pearl Harbor in the Movies and Progressive Hollywood: A People’s Film History of the United States. He has written for Variety, Television Quarterly, Cineaste, New Times L.A., Islands, Action Asia, Travel Age West, Skin Inc., Porthole, Far East Traveler, Asian Diver, L.A. Times, Toronto Globe & Mail, Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, San Jose Mercury News, Pacific Business News, E The Environmental Magazine, L.A. Reader, and is a staff writer for the Los Angeles Journal.