February 6, 2014
Oh Boy – Germany, 2012
It feels strange to write this, but Jan Ole Gester’s Oh Boy is about a young man in search of a cup of coffee. He seems not to know what he wants out of life other than that. The “boy” in Oh Boy is Niko Fischer (Tom Schilling), a young college dropout living off the money his father sends him every month in the belief that he is using it to pay for his education. His breakfast consists of an alka-seltzer and a cigarette, and he doesn’t appear to have opened up his mail for weeks. He lives alone and is so unmoved by life that he has yet to unpack any of his boxes. It is almost as if he is unsure whether he is staying or going.
Throughout the film, we watch as he makes his way through a world that he no longer feels connected to and has begun to withdraw from. In an early scene, we see him rushing to get dressed so as to avoid talking to the woman he slept next to the night before. When she awakens, her first impulse is to ask him to sit with her a bit longer, indicating a degree of warmth and sweetness. She proceeds to ask him how he slept and offers to make him coffee. Yet judging by his bumbling speech and constant refrain that he has something important to do that morning, it is clear that Niko can’t get away fast enough. When she asks what he wants, he can only look at her silently. In truth, what he wants is to be alone. Later, we see pictures of the two of them in happier times, their faces beaming with expressions of joy, and we wonder just what went wrong. It’s a question Niko himself may not even know the answer to.
The film follows Niko as he stumbles along what may eventually be seen as one of the most important days of his life. At each stop, we get a sense of his alienation from society as well as his struggle to make sense of the world and his place in it. The people he encounters include a psychologist whose approval he needs to get his driver’s license back, a cashier at a local coffee shop who flusters him by giving him too many choices, a neighbor in search of someone to connect with, and his thespian friend Matze (Marc Hosemann), who sits with him at a diner and eats lavishly, apparently not noticing his friends’ inability to order anything. If these people have something in common, it is that they all seem to have lost sight of the individuals in front of them and now react to the world as if all that is required of them is to quote tired clichés of indifference or defend themselves against imaginary attacks on their honor.
Some of these encounters are more involving than others, and it is not clear exactly how all of them impact Niko personally. Niko hears two stories from World War II. The first is told by an actor relating the plot of a movie he is shooting; the second is told by an elderly man in a bar who confesses that he doesn’t understand the world around him. His story is surprisingly more moving than the one being made into a movie, and while it doesn’t have a happy ending, it offers a glimpse into what is perhaps the next chapter in Germany’s ongoing healing – understanding the experiences of children growing up in Germany in the 1930’s and 1940’s. This is the generation that grew up knowing about – or in the man’s case, personally witnessing – many of the adults around them participating in shameful acts, and it is clearly still affected by the experience.
Oh Boy moves slowly and its lack of a traditional narrative will likely frustrate some viewers. However, it builds with each encounter and ends with a heart-wrenching scene that would bring even the most jaded of people back to reality. In addition, the film is often whimsical, offering a humorous view of the sometimes ludicrous way people go about their jobs. Singled out for commentary are their explanations to frustrated customers, which are simultaneously logical and nonsensical – logical because that is what people are trained to say and do and nonsensical because their explanations cannot be justified by anything other than vague company policies. At other times, the film is more dramatic, drawing attention to the desperation that some people feel and the plight of those whose dreams have either faded or been lost. Matze, we learn, was so convinced that the perfect, star-making part would come along that he declined role after role and now finds himself asking a friend who made it to intervene on his behalf.
Throughout it all, Niko remains an intriguing enigma. At times, he is a rather sympathetic character; at other times, it seems that he is the architect of his own isolation. He seems entirely deserving of both the hug he receives from an elderly woman and the verbal wake-up call he receives in the bar toward the end of the film. And the film seems to be suggesting that he is in danger of becoming like these two characters – old, alone, and confused. I think he gets the message. At the very least, he gets his cup of coffee, and to him, that’s a step in the right direction. (on DVD in Region 3)
3 and a half stars
*Oh Boy is in German with English subtitles. The subtitles unfortunately contain both spelling mistakes and translations that are extremely problematic.