sat 02/03/2024

Oh Boy | reviews, news & interviews

Oh Boy

Oh Boy

A Berlin slacker strives for direction, in a comic cousin to Frances Ha

Where to now? Niko (Tom Schilling) ponders his prospects with disapproving dad Walter (Ulrich Noeten)

Niko (Tom Schilling) just wants a decent cup of coffee. With this ambling excuse for motivation, he drifts through a day and night in Berlin, contriving to lose his girlfriend, driver’s license and college funding (Dad’s just discovered he dropped out two years ago).

Coincidentally similar to Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha, this black-and-white indie film about late-twentysomething urban ennui has touched a nerve in Germany, where it won six German Film Awards, as well as the European Film Awards’ European Discovery prize, and is still showing in Berlin a year after release.

Writer-director Jan Ole Gerster’s debut is only superficially kin to Baumbach’s New York comedy, with a very different hero to Greta Gerwig’s goofily upbeat Frances. Schilling’s Niko is a passive, hangdog victim of comic circumstance and his own inertia. Episodic humiliations pile up around him, from the golf course where his lawyer dad cuts off his cash, to the coffee shop where a waitress refuses to let him off a few cents, “otherwise every dosser will want their coffee for free”. He’s soon reduced to sheepishly fishing back the change he’s just dropped in an actual “dosser”’s cup. A chance meeting with a highly strung, attractive old classmate (Freiderike Kepmter, pictured above right) just gets him beaten up. Even if privileged, polite Niko could catch a break, he couldn’t decide what to do with it.

The black-and-white cinematography, mostly jazz score and upscale nebbish hero recall Woody Allen’s Manhattan, but this is no lush love letter to Berlin. It’s more like a notebook of jotted observations which add flavour to the script’s vignettes – like the waitress at infamous bohemian bar White Trash who’ll only speak English to Niko, one of several Americanised affectations. Though Gerster shot in black-and-white to find a fresh perspective on familiar neighbourhoods, the result is an almost mundane, muted view of his great city.

The ICA should be congratulated for releasing a German film which isn’t part of the country’s dark version of heritage cinema – the war, the Wall and Baader-Meinhof. Still Berlin’s history hovers at the edge of Niko’s vision, as when he visits the set of one such pompous war epic, where extras playing Nazis and yellow-starred Jews stand together smoking between takes. Finally, sitting alone at a late-night bar, the ties and options he woke up with having dropped away one by one, he’s accosted by an elderly drunk (Michael Ginsdek, pictured above left). Niko tries to shrug off the boorish, garrulous old-timer, who has returned to Berlin after 60 years, and professes himself a stranger to the bomb-flattened, rebuilt, endlessly morphing city. Gradually, this Ghost of Berlin Past grips Niko with a story from his Thirties childhood, when marching and murder didn’t permit genteel disaffection. Oh Boy straightens its shoulders here, and considers cohering into an actual point.

Oh Boy! is the original title, and it’s a shame the exclamation mark was lost. The full phrase catches Gerster’s whimsical irony and youthful lightness of touch, as he speaks directly to his German generation.

Overleaf: watch the trailer to Oh Boy

This Ghost of Berlin Past grips Niko with a story from his Thirties childhood, when marching and murder didn’t permit genteel disaffection


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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