The crushing social angst found within a generation of despondent, shiftless hipsters has long been a mainstay of micro-budget filmmaking. Whilst Jan Ole Gerster’s German effort Oh Boy! (2012) shares many of these traits, this Berlin-set slacker comedy also boasts a heart of gold and an unassuming charm. We follow Niko (Tom Schilling), a young man wandering aimlessly through life. What transpires is a tragically hilarious episode in Niko’s life, a man whose self-constructed wall of disillusionment has left him on the outskirts of the real world, peering in wistfully whilst unable to motivate himself to enter into the fray.
Each vignette of Niko’s insular life presents us with a naturalist snapshot of contemporary Berlin life, with director Gerster’s dry, sharp humour often seeping into the frame like some form of unavoidable osmosis. Similar in tone to both the uncomfortable comedy of Curb Your Enthusiasm creator/star Larry David and the irony-tinged drollness of the mumblecore movement, this deadpan portrait of cultural cynicism is a surprisingly heartwarming excursion through the street of modern Germany that perfectly exemplifies the malady of today’s disenfranchised Europeans.
From Niko’s futile quest for coffee (a thirst that, despite his best intentions, our protagonist constantly fails to quench) to the uncomfortably awkward conversations he finds himself drawn into, Gerster’s Oh Boy! is littered with a myriad of trifling moments of coffee-black comedy. Jim Jarmusch’s early transient films and Manhattan-era Woody Allen efforts are clearly a major influences on this charismatic tale. However, this joviality must inevitably make way for a more serious twist, that whilst initially jarring is a necessary moment of personal revelation and an essential emotional peak within Niko’s otherwise flat-lining narrative arc. But whilst Niko may be the film’s central star, it’s Berlin that’s the clear standout.
An intimate love letter to the city, cinematographer Phillip Kirsamer’s monochrome depiction of Berlin feels almost timeless, accentuating the charm of the German capital in a way that the grey concrete veneer of its war-torn architecture often fails to articulate. Sound-tracking this affectionately fashioned billet-doux is a swinging jazz score that infects Oh Boy!with a playful rhythm and contagious vivacity. Behind every joke and wry smile, there often lies a deep-seated sadness and sense of insecurity within all of us, with Gerster using Niko’s inability to adapt to modern life to touch upon the film’s underlying theme of national identity.
Niko’s own disenfranchisement and lack of belonging is used as a metaphor for a city that still visibly bares the scars of a turbulent history of fascism, segregation and communism. Now more accepting of its history and continuing to carve out its own unique identity, Oh Boy! uses humour to encapsulate the continuous evolution of German identity. Intelligent, witty and, most importantly, an awful lot of fun, Oh Boy! is one of the most delightful discoveries of the year thus far.
This review was originally published on 24 June, 2013 as part of our Edinburgh Film Festival coverage.