Twenty-something slacker Niko wasn’t always so aimless. A woman who grew up with him reminds him that he used to know what he wanted. And apparently what he wanted was to make fun of her, nicknaming her Roly-Poly when they were kids because of her weight. But now, he doesn’t have much energy even for teasing; he’s a victim of inertia, a man-child law school dropout plodding around a hamster wheel of laziness.
It all sounds rather dire, but in writer-director Jan Ole Gerster’s “A Coffee in Berlin,” the proceedings are actually quite entertaining in a mildly farcical way — at least at first. The movie has a German “Seinfeld” kind of feel, where Tom Schilling plays straight man Niko and wacky characters drift in and out of view.
Shot in black-and-white, the movie has a jaunty, jazzy score, which lightens the mood considerably. In the first few minutes, Niko breaks up with his girlfriend, fails to reacquire a suspended driver’s license and realizes he has no money. This has the trappings of a dreary drama, but the snappy ditties and occasionally very funny moments of absurd humor are ever-present amid the tragedy, as when a woman catches Niko trying to take back the change he just gave to a homeless man.
Although Niko is constantly moving, not a lot happens over the course of the movie. The one thing he wants is a cup of coffee, but he’s thwarted at every turn, whether it’s because a machine is broken or he doesn’t have enough change. Like most things, though, he doesn’t try particularly hard to get what he wants.
Schilling is excellent as the deadpan Niko. He can be a frustrating character, the way he sleepwalks through a day in his life while looking too cool for his own good. But he has his moments, whether he’s comforting a man whose wife has breast cancer or spending some quality time with an elderly woman who just wants a buddy.
It would be easy to see the movie and its random vignettes as a satire of the arrested development of millennials, but there’s more at work here. When Niko meets a drunken elderly man in a bar, the mood darkens as the young loafer gets an earful about what Kristallnacht was like. It’s a powerful scene and a reminder of the dangers of aimlessly following along with an underdeveloped sense of empathy.
“A Coffee in Berlin” is a movie that pulls off a couple of impressive feats. It manages to make an entertaining story out of nothing in particular. And just when you get comfortable passively observing a passive observer, the minutest of twists becomes its own call to action. It urges the audience to consider this small story in a broader context.
★ ★ ★
Unrated. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Contains strong language and a sexual situation. In German with subtitles. 88 minutes.