In black-and-white, with a retro jazz score, Jan Ole Gerster's sly and melancholy A Coffee in Berlin doesn't exactly feel timeless, but it doesn't feel of this particular time, either. That works just fine, because Niko Fischer - the deadbeat protagonist played with a scruffy, hangdog cool by Tom Schilling - is stopped in time: jobless, a university dropout, with an empty apartment and an empty agenda.
Waking up beside his bright-eyed girlfriend (Katharina Schüttler, looking like she surfed in on the French New Wave), Niko is itching to get away. He's as restless as he is purposeless, and as he moves through the day - meeting an admonishing therapist, a weird neighbor, a goofball actor friend, Matze (Marc Hosemann), and childhood schoolmate Julika (Friederike Kempter), whom he once taunted for being fat (she's not anymore) - everything goes wrong.
Originally titled Oh Boy, the film isn't as larky as it first appears. Funny stuff happens to Niko as he drifts around the graffiti-scarred, though splendid-looking city, but the mood gets progressively darker. And the ghost of a nation's collective memory rattles its chains. A visit to a film set finds Matze's colleague starring as a Nazi officer in a "save or betray" romantic melodrama; a late night encounter at a divy bar finds Niko listening to an old boozehound's boyhood recollections - of his father handing him rocks to join the Kristallnacht throng.
Another movie with a slacker hero, with nowhere to go, you say? Not really. There's a muted absurdist thread running through A Coffee in Berlin, and while Niko's quest for the titular brew devolves into a series of whimsical frustrations, the filmmaker's motives are more serious. Past and present - and the future (whatever that is) - swirl around like black liquid in a cup. Dark, bitter, but it could give you a jolt.
A Coffee in Berlin ***1/2 (Out of four stars)
Directed by Jan Ole Gerster. With Tom Schilling, Katharina Schüttler, Marc Hosemann, Friederike Kempter. In German with subtitles. Distributed by Music Box Films.
Running time: 1 hour, 28 mins.
Parent's guide: No MPAA rating (adult themes).
Playing at: Ritz Bourse.