Film review – Oh Boy (2012)

16 September 2013
Niko Fischer (Tom Schilling)

Niko Fischer (Tom Schilling)

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.

Thomas Caldwell, 2013

MIFF 2013 recommendations part 3

24 July 2013

Melbourne International Film Festival 2013

Here is my final batch of MIFF 2013 recommendations before the festival kicks off. Don’t forget to check out part 1 and part 2, and I hope my thoughts on the films below are helpful. In fact, you could do a lot worse than seeing the first three films on this list, which make a sort of unofficial indie trilogy about 20-somethings adrift in three of the greatest cities in the world (after Melbourne of course):

Frances Ha

Frances Ha

This energetic celebration of friendship and the awkwardness of modern life provides one of the most  joyous cinema experiences in years. A feel-good film with substance and integrity.

2 Autumns, 3 Winters

A formally playful French indie about love, friendship and the dramas of life, which uses its self-awareness to draw in the viewer rather than distance them.

Oh Boy

The deadpan humour and mild absurdism of this film set over 24 hours in the life of an aimless young man living in Berlin, becomes a deeply moving film about collective memory.

A Touch of Sin

An expertly made and powerful commentary on social inequality in modern day China, told through four overlapping stories with violent resolutions.

Harmony Lessons

Harmony Lessons

An unsettling school drama set in Kazakhstan about a boy bullied by another student with ties to an organised extortion ring. This slow burn film undermines expectations, plays with audience sympathies and sparingly uses dream sequences to powerful effect.

A Hijacking

The realism in this film about a Danish boat captured by Somali pirates delivers a fascinating insight into hostage negotiations as well as delivering a tense thriller.

I Am Devine

A heartfelt, in-depth and entertaining documentary about Harris Glenn Milstead and his alter-ego Devine; muse to John Waters and counter-culture/queer icon.

These Final Hours

These Final Hours

An  end-of-the-world thriller/drama featuring a man attempting to get to a hedonistic party to spend his remaining time on the planet in a state of ignorant bliss. However, he discovers that there could be better ways to use what little time he has left in this constantly surprising and highly accomplished new Australian film.

Valentine Road

A sobering documentary about a hate crime murder committed in a classroom and the subsequent trial, which raises issues concerning community culpability, marginalisation of LGBTI youth, how intolerance escalates into violence and victim blaming.


Another film to examine school violence and persecution, but with the twist of having the main character – a bullied loner who foolishly publishes online a cathartic revenge story – getting falsely accused of planning a high school massacre.

From the films I’ve seen so far I also recommend people check out Ilo IloA World Not Ours and Twisted Trunk, Big Fat Body.  I also had a lot of fun watching I Declare WarPatrick, Lesson of the Evil and Rewind This! And I really urge people to go to at least one or two of the Short Film Packages.

Finally, there are a number of films I’m really hoping to see during the festival and some of those are Leviathan, 3x3D, Omar, Like Father, Like Son, Ginger and Rosa, The Dance of Reality, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, Bastards, The Pervert‘s Guide to Ideology and pretty much everything in the Shining Violence: Italian Giallo section.

Have a great MIFF!

Thomas Caldwell
Shorts & Next Gen Coordinator
Melbourne International Film Festival