Jonesing for Java: ‘A Coffee in Berlin’ Is as Tepid as a Day-old Pot of Folgers

Friederike Kempter, Marc Hosemann and Tom Schilling, from left, in A Coffee in Berlin.

Friederike Kempter, Marc Hosemann and Tom Schilling, from left, in A Coffee in Berlin.

From Germany’s New Wave, a tedious exercise in tedium called A Coffee in Berlin is a black-and-white template of nothingness that shows how far the once unique and inventive German film industry has plummeted. A dossier of images in the unfocused life of a young slacker, it probably says something vital and maybe even political to Generation Y Germans today. In the American commercial market, it just lies there like stale sauerkraut.

A Coffee in Berlin ★
(1/4 stars)

Written and directed by: Jan Ole Gerster
Starring: Tom Schilling, Katharina Schüttler and Justus von Dohnányi
Running time: 88 min.

When first we meet sour-faced Niko Fischer (Tom Schilling, of Mein Kampf), he’s being arrested for drunken driving and forced to undergo a psychiatric evaluation. Without a driver’s license, he must take buses and subways to service his daily coffee addiction, but on this day everything goes wrong. He tries to withdraw enough money for a caffeine fix, but the ATM breaks down. An upstairs neighbor above the flat he’s just rented knocks on his door, pours out the intimate details of his wife’s breast cancer and suffers a meltdown. An actor friend takes him to visit the set of a film about Nazis, where he sees his chance for a hot cup of java from the catering table, but the coffee urn is empty. He approaches his exasperated father on the golf course for a loan but gets disinherited for dropping out of school. He attends a performance-art dance production in which four people crawl across a bare stage gagging, screaming and simulating childbirth. All he wants is a cup of coffee, and all the city of Berlin does is thwart his every move. It’s only 88 minutes long, but in the hands of director Jan Ole Gerster, it seems like a month of hard labor.

Wonders never cease. A Coffee in Berlin is a Valium overdose that won six prizes in the German equivalent of the Academy Awards, including best film director, actor and screenplay. Alas, what Germans see as nourishing, viable and innovative can regrettably be, to an American audience, just another knockwurst.