Randy Russell is an actor and screenwriter. A purist, he will only work on actual film — American Job, The Pool, Soulmate, Modus Operandi, and the upcoming China Test Girls — so it all might end soon. His website is at rspeen.com.
7:59 a.m. (All times are approximate.) (Soon-to-be-ex-) girlfriend’s place. Every day is like every other day, except for the ones that aren’t, and this is one of those days. Niko Fischer (Tom Schilling) wakes up before his girlfriend – we get the feeling that doesn’t happen too often – and when she wakes and offers him coffee, he declines. That’s his first mistake. His next, when she asks if they can hang out later, is to say, “I’ve got a million things to do.”Which is more or less the spineless male way of saying: “I want to break up with you.” Director Jan Ole Gerster’s A Coffee in Berlin depicts an ordinary day for Niko that turns out – in spite of caffeine depravation – to be life changing.
9:15 a.m. Niko’s apartment. He doesn’t yet realize he’s late for his medical-psychological assessment to determine if he can be reissued his license after some drunk-driving charges. Niko has moved in weeks ago but has yet to unpack. He plops a fizzy tablet into water. Throughout the movie he smokes, but always depends on the kindness of strangers for a light. At home he inserts his cigarette in the toaster, most likely the only action the toaster gets. You might also surmise that he has no coffee beans, and if he did, he probably couldn’t find the coffee grinder, filters, or coffeemaker.
10:10 a.m. High-end café where Niko attempts to order a coffee. Later in the story, there’s a crucial moment when Niko asks: “You know when you get the feeling that the people all around you are kinda strange somehow? But when you think about it a little longer, you realize it’s not the others but you who’s the problem?” Before this idea can be explored, however, he’s interrupted by some drunken idiots who he treats with beyond-the-call-of-duty patience. To which I think: “No, Niko, it’s not you! It’s these people, the sadistic court psychologist who denied you your license, the transit cops, the performance artists, and this café that has turned a simple cup of coffee into a personal lifestyle statement.” As Niko is about a Euro short, he’s denied a cup of joe once again.
11:00 a.m. Back at the apartment, forced into acquaintance with the neighbor from hell who comes bearing his wife’s meatballs from hell. In a tremendous exhibition of humanity, Niko comforts this man who has more than a few screws loose. Me, I wouldn’t even have answered the door. But then, I would have coffee at home. I always have coffee at home, and I’m so neurotic about running out that I make extra, keep some in a jar in the refrigerator just in case there comes that day when the gas isn’t working, no way to heat water, and outside the apocalypse has closed all the coffee shops.
1:15 p.m. Niko meets with his friend Matze (Marc Hosemann) at a restaurant where the coffee machine has inconveniently broken down. A chance meeting with Julika (Friederike Kempter), a friend from the past, significantly changes the course of the day. But the less I say about this, the more reason you still have to see this movie. The actors are all excellent, by the way. Five stars out of five.
3:45 p.m. Niko just wants to go home, but Matze forces him to visit an actor friend on the movie set of a Nazi-era drama, and bad timing with craft services contributes once again to Niko’s empty cup. This scene reminded me of Wings of Desire (1987) and its similarly meandering black-and-white portrait of Berlin (though while the Wall was still standing). I saw it when I was roughly Niko’s age, and for a period of time it was my religion. Angels didn’t take you on a tour of alternative Bedford Falls, but could merely whisper subliminally in your ear (What? Something comforting? “Why don’t you have a cup of coffee,” perhaps?) I remember that time in my life through the lens of that movie. I didn’t want lust or pleasures of the flesh, like Bruno Ganz made silly by his humanness; I wanted to be the Otto Sander angel, lurking on the stage with Nick Cave, and Crime & the City Solution. But here comes Peter Falk, rubbing his hands together in the cold, a cup of coffee from a food truck – and I am torn between the cool and the hot.
5:30 p.m. Niko makes his way out to the country club to meet with his father who says it’s too late for coffee and orders them schnapps. Here, I thought of Five Easy Pieces (1970), where the weight of the family hangs like a hideous, priceless, framed oil portrait. Niko’s father – a man who has mythologized his own past to the extent that he doesn’t really know it – asks Niko what he was doing for the two years since he dropped out of school. Niko answers: “Thinking. Thinking about me, thinking about you.” And we know what that means. Niko has no snappy retort, like Jack Nicholson might. There is no diner scene, telling the waitress to hold the chicken between her legs. Niko is humiliated, intimidated, but also liberated, relieved, and a hundred other things, all at once.
10:30 p.m. “You know, some men got the craving for gold and silver. Others need lots of land, with herds of cattle. And then there’s those that got the weakness for whiskey, and for women. When you boil it all down, what does a man really need? Just a smoke and a cup of coffee.” That’s from Johnny Guitar (1954). Niko ends up at a saloon where the coffee machine has been cleaned for the day. I’ve heard that one before. So he must settle for a cigarette and a vodka, and a conversation with a drunk old man, the kind of person most people would move away from as quickly as possible. But Niko listens to him – really listens – and that’s why there’s hope for Niko.
11:45 p.m. Throughout this movie we hopefully have been attentive to the faces in the crowd, the details of the city that Niko is seeing. Graffiti and signs, bicycles and trains, the old mixed with the new. But what does it say about any of our lives if we end up at the least aesthetically pleasing of all institutions, the hospital? The coffee vending machine is a terrible compromise, a last-ditch attempt, so when it turns out to be out of order, who knows – a blessing in disguise?
8 a.m. Morning. A café. A white ceramic cup, and no coffee ever tasted so good.