“Are you still serving coffee?”
German Academy Award-sweeping Oh Boy [A Coffee in Berlin] is a day in the life of a Berliner slacker named Niko Fischer (Tom Schilling). He’s a law school dropout that’s been living off the thousand-dollar-a-week allowance his father continuously supplies under the auspices that it’s being used for college. He ignores responsibility to the tune of losing his girlfriend, his license, and his drive to succeed as anything more than a thinker thinking for thinking’s sake because he has nothing better to do or the ambition to try. The only reason he even surfaces today is that the ATM has eaten his bankcard and he literally has no money to his name. What’s worse is the fact he cannot get a cup of coffee to save his life.
Instead of receiving the one drink he covets, Niko gets bombarded by people who for some reason need to engage him in conversation without invitation. First it’s a new neighbor who is alone and adrift seeking someone to vent with; next is a former classmate from years ago that he doesn’t even recognize because of all the weight she’s lost (Friederike Kempter‘s Julika). His best friend Matze (Marc Hosemann) starts driving him around town, his father (Ulrich Noethen‘s Walter) enjoys making him sweat until dropping a bombshell, and strangers like a drug dealer’s grandmother (Lis Böttner) and a septuagenarian barfly (Michael Gwisdek) act as though he’s the one person on earth who can understand them. Somehow Niko appears as though from a bygone era disengaged with the present.
Well, he’s definitely disenfranchised, walking around a bustling city as a man without an identity. He doesn’t even remember what he was like in grade school and must ask the former “Roly Poly Julie” despite her having seen him through a filter of animosity. But this is the life he has built for himself—one hinging upon the opinions of others because he refuses to summon the nerve and confidence to become something else. His knowledge comes from bits and pieces read in books; happiness is staying at home without the need to physically experience another human being. He’s over it, over people’s problems and people’s successes. Niko is so self-absorbed that he can’t even be bothered to care about himself. It all takes too much effort.
This day that writer/director Jan Ole Gerster sets in front of him is therefore an eye-opening adventure. A personality is slowly coaxed out as his attempts to tell figures of authority what they want to hear fail, (the psychologist performing an “idiot test” to see if his license should be returned), and the brashness to talk back and manufacture escape do not, (a couple of public transportation guards simply doing their jobs). Niko is initially a character to disregard, one that floats along existence pretending the world is happening to him. Eventually, however, clarity sets in to both expose something about those around him and himself. He discovers he isn’t the only one searching for answers; he isn’t on a deserted island without peers.
We learn how Matze is an under-achiever afraid to take a leap of faith too; the old barfly finds himself alien to those around him of a new generation he cannot understand. Niko’s insecurities become justified and his faults thrown in his face to cut through the repression of memories he filed under “just being kids” that should be earmarked in a cabinet labeled “being an asshole”. Suddenly his super power of ignoring life and getting what he wants screeches to a halt and forces him to act. He has to leave his neighborhood block to acquire money. He has to leave his comfort zone to interact with the outside world. And he cannot have his coffee until he acknowledges he isn’t a unique butterfly.
It’s interesting that the two people who get him to open up are elderly—parental figures he yearned for instead of those he had. Niko doesn’t want to ruffle feathers despite doing exactly that in his youth; he hopes to remain unseen and yet a light is shining directly upon him. Here is our millennial cypher trying his damnedest not to be recognized or publicized or criticized. Getting that cup of coffee would reward his actions and fate will have none of it this day. He will be recognized, publicized, and criticized and he will listen to metaphorical words of wisdom. He’ll see what happens to someone like him in the future, how complacency and ego shield the tragedies of the world until you’re too numb to change.
This is a make or break moment and Schilling plays it naturally throughout: the malaise, ambivalence, fear, and boredom. He cannot deal with those around him because he refuses to believe their problems are his. Broke, unable to drive, and alone, he still believes he’s better than them and deserving of breaks. He sees carnage and wonders how it affects him, not the world. They’re expendable, inconsequential pieces doing whatever they want removed from his influence because he’s unable to see what his rejection does. Is he like the youngsters who think they know everything or the old guard wondering where it all went wrong? The answer’s a little bit of both because he’s weighed down by their shortcomings. But what if he could embrace their strengths instead.
 Julika Hoffmann (Friederike Kempter) and Niko Fischer (Tom Schilling) in A COFFEE IN BERLIN. Courtesy of Music Box Films
 Matze (Marc Hosemann) and Niko Fischer (Tom Schilling) in A COFFEE IN BERLIN. Courtesy of Music Box Films
 Julika Hoffmann (Friederike Kempter) in A COFFEE IN BERLIN. Courtesy of Music Box Films