Is the quest for a cup of coffee the perfect encapsulation of the growing meaninglessness or superficiality of modern life? Without reductively branding this pursuit of the trivial as something distinct to a particular generation, subculture or geographical cluster (let alone using the inane and smug ‘first world problems’ label), can anything useful be said about this phenomenon? German writer/director Jan Ole Gerster seems to think so and as a result has made Oh Boy, a film set in Berlin that blends observational humour with darker social critique about Germany’s collective memory. Inaction becomes the defining characteristic of the film, where the inability to act on important issues creates a condition where unimportant things take on disproportional importance. On the surface Oh Boy is an effective companion piece to Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach, 2012), but dig a little deeper and it is better considered as a reverberation of Wings of Desire (Wim Wenders, 1987).
As Oh Boy begins the twenty-something protagonist Niko Fischer (Tom Schilling) is established as somebody of inaction. Throughout the film the audience also discover that he has quit or dropped out of everything he has ever begun. Waking up next to his girlfriend, he cannot commit to the suggestion of seeing her later in the day and on the spot their relationship ends with a whimper. Niko heads back to his own apartment and spends the next 24 hours drifting around Berlin, going with the flow, turning up late to things, avoiding commitments and only responding to immediate situations. The one constant is his desire for a cup of coffee and the film’s running gag is how circumstances constantly thwart him in this regard.
Despite its self-deprecating tone, Oh Boy does not condemn Niko. For the most part he is a highly sympathetic, identifiable and likeable character to spend the film in the company of. The film’s jazz soundtrack, gorgeous black-and-white cinematography and deadpan humour create a romantic melancholic atmosphere that is highly enjoyable to indulge in, with Niko as a charismatic flâneur. Oh Boy does not necessarily criticise inaction, but it does explore the consequences of inaction in the form of generation divisions and how the past can haunt the present.
The consequences of inaction are depicted not just by the various disruptions and setbacks that Niko experiences, but also through the experiences of other characters. Niko’s friend Matze (Marc Hosemann) is revealed to have been a promising actor whose refusal to accepts jobs he felt were beneath him has reduced him to now asking former acting school friends for bit parts. More significant is the encounter Niko has with a drunk older man who tells him about an incident from his childhood during the Nazi era. The man relates a destructive incident that his father was involved in, yet at the time he mourned for how this incident would trivially affect him. This sting in the tail, which is saved for late in the film, demonstrates the full potential of the harm in pursuing selfish and immediate concerns at the expense of more important issues.
There are scenes in Oh Boy where characters do decide to act and the way those scenes are presented within the film offer interesting points of comparison. One scene involves Julika Hoffmann (Friederike Kempter), an old school friend of Niko’s whom he becomes reacquainted with. While being harassed by a group of teenage thugs Julika chooses to stand-up to them and when Niko assists her he is assaulted. Rather than serving as a warning about the consequences of intervening, this scene demonstrates that standing up to persecution and cruelty can come with a price, but it is still the nobler course of action. The other key scene is when Niko and Matze visit a set for a film about a Nazi officer who protects a Jewish woman. This also is an example of acting righteously at great personal expense, although the irony is that it is a fictional incident that Niko and Matze assume to be real because it is set during World War II.
The film about the Nazi officer (which echoes the Nazi themed film-within-the film from Wings of Desire) and the old man’s story reveal the ghost of Germany’s Nazi past within contemporary Germany. Like so many aspects of modern Germany’s society and culture, it displays an extremely sophisticated drive to acknowledge the country’s extremely dark past and recognise how continually remembering it is so essential. The main thrust of the commentary in Oh Boy is that complicity and inaction may be understandable under extreme circumstances, but not making a decision is in itself a decision and that will come back to haunt you. Niko’s relationship with Julika serves as a political-made-personal metaphor of this dynamic, where he is confronted with how hurt she is as an adult as a result of the way she was taunted at school by people like him who just joined in.
And yet again, Oh Boy is not necessarily waving its finger at Niko and his generation, nor at the older generation who were alive during the Nazi era. In fact, the film suggests a bond between these two generations that the generation in-between does not share. As well as empathising with the old man there is another scene where Niko shares a momentary connection with the grandmother of a drug dealer he and Matze visit. Perhaps Gerster is suggesting that Niko’s generation have an affinity with the older generation because by not growing up under the immediate cloud of Germany’s Nazi past, they are the first generation who are able to directly confront what happened.
Oh Boy seems to have less regard for the generation of Niko’s parents who are mostly presented as not necessarily unsympathetic, but as unreasonable and detached. Niko’s father is only depicted playing golf outside of Berlin and seems to be from a different world to Niko. Niko’s lonely neighbour is so self-absorbed that he mourns the fact that he no longer wants to have sex with his wife now that she has had a double mastectomy, without thinking of how she must feel. The psychologist whom Niko must meet in order to get his driver licence back is condescending, resentful and judgemental; using verbal traps and bureaucracy to foil Niko for no apparent reason.
If the older generation are still affected by the guilt of living during the Nazi era and the middle generation are somehow stagnant from the burden of having to grown up in the shadow of that horrific history, then Niko’s generation is the one with the most potential to move things forward. Despite the characterisation of Niko as aimless, his encounters with the older generation and ghosts from his personal past in the form of Julika, suggest the potential for growth based on the ability to confront the past. The constant shots of trains throughout Oh Boy serve both as eerie reminders of how so many Jewish people were transported out of Berlin during the Nazi era, but they also suggest a sense of progression. As Niko uses trains to move around Berlin he is constantly moving forward even if the direction is not yet fixed. There is a melancholic mood that underlies Oh Boy, but it is mostly fun, breezy and energetic, just like Niko and the generation he represents. His quest may simply have been for a cup of coffee, but it is a quest that results in enormous personal growth. That is hopeful and not in the slightest way trivial.