Mad about the Boy
It's an odd thing to say about one of Germany’s most successful recent independent films, but the tale behind Jan-Ole Gerster and his debut "Oh Boy" ("A Coffee in Berlin") – a story of ambitions, tribulations, and, finally success – has all the makings of a feel-good Hollywood classic. Even Gerster can’t believe how things turned out: "Some times when I see the film," he laughs, "I'm like, It’s not that good!"
Most who've seen the film disagree, not least those who nominated it for awards. Ostensibly a movie about one man’s search for a cup of coffee, "Oh Boy" charts a day in the life of Niko Fischer, a passive drifter trying to figure out where he belongs. Beautifully shot in black and white in Berlin’s timeless streets, it’s enigmatically funny and strangely tragic, full of understated vignettes leading nowhere but lingering long afterwards.
Gerster’s love of cinema developed early. Growing up in the former mining region of Siegerland, he immersed himself in movies, though early viewing was influenced by two sisters – "That’s why I had to see 'Dirty Dancing' way too many times!" – and his father. "He kept watching a few films over and over again when they were on the telly. He really liked 'One flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest' and 'Jaws'."
His mother also played a role: "The first film that made me really want to read about films was 'Taxi Driver'. My mother noticed and started to buy me books about how films are made."
By the late 1990s, Gerster nursed directorial ambitions, and scoured video covers in his local rental store for credits. "I found X Filme by checking out which films I’d liked recently from Germany: 'Das Leben ist eine Baustelle' ('Life is all you get') [Wolfgang Becker, 1997], 'Lola rennt' ('Run Lola run') [Tom Tykwer, 1998] and 'Absolute Giganten' ('Gigantic') [Sebastian Schipper, 1999]. I sent an application, and of course they didn’t answer."
Proving one of his more helpful characteristics, however, Gerster’s tenacity won out.
"I kept calling them almost every month. I knew half of the staff before I started to work for them! They started to recognize me: 'Either this guy is insane, or he really wants this job.'"
Gerster at last landed an interview with Manuela Stehr, an X Filme co-founder, and joined up as an intern in 2000. In a neat twist, he points out, "She’s now the head of the distribution company that distributed 'Oh Boy'."
Gerster worked there almost three years, but his biggest break came with Becker’s "Good Bye, Lenin!" (2003), with which he fell in love after an early draft. "I told everyone that whenever this film is made, I want to be a part of it, no matter what I do: I’m going to bring coffee, I’m going to carry cables. I want to be there when it happens."
In the end, he got a better job. "[Becker] was looking for a personal assistant who had a good connection to the office. I knew the people, and I knew the project. He invited me to his place to get to know me. The only thing we talked about was music. He was playing some Crosby, Stills and Nash, and I recognized the song. I think that was enough for him to give me the job!"
Gerster was invited to direct a documentary, "Der Schmerz geht, der Film bleibt" (2004), about the making of "Good Bye, Lenin!", and also applied unsuccessfully to the German Film and Television Academy. A second attempt proved fruitful. His application film featured a single actor, his friend Tom Schilling, who’d go on to star in "Oh Boy".
Gerster enrolled in late 2003, but proved anything other than an ideal pupil. Unaccustomed to writing scripts, he struggled to produce any of the short films expected of him, and the only directorial undertakings he completed were music videos for indie rock acts "Get Well Soon" and "Nada Surf". Instead, he re - luctantly appeared in "Ein Freund von mir" ("A Friend of Mine") (2006), Sebastian Schipper’s follow-up to "Gigantic". Though Gerster had no intention of becoming an actor, it proved a useful experience. "To be in front of the camera helped me to understand how actors must feel if there’s a whole crew around them and a crazy guy constantly yelling 'Do it like this!'"
For a while, Gerster became one of the many creative types who disappear into Berlin’s black hole, their ambitions thwarted by inertia. In the end, however, he recognized how this could provide the foundations for his aspirations: "I realized that not going to school, drifting through Berlin, hanging out in cafes, could be the subject of my film. I finished that script at the very last second: they really were about to kick me out. They were like, 'We’ve been asking you for five years to make short films, and then you come along with a feature film script. Do you think this can be your graduation film?' I said, 'Yeah, sure!'"
Tom Schilling was lined up for the lead, and suggested talking to Marcos Kantis, who’d been involved with "Good Bye, Lenin!" and had now set up his own Schiwago Film. Step by step, Kantis gathered the funding, though Gerster, too, played his part: "I met Andreas Schreitmüller at the Berlinale. I sneaked myself into the Arte reception and I asked if I could send him my script. Two or three weeks later, an editor from Arte called and told me she’d like to meet me. Then things started to move forward …"
The budget was small, but in summer 2010 Gerster began filming, his initial 22 day shoot calling upon an impressive cast, including Justus von Dohnányi ("Der Untergang" / "Downfall", "The Monuments Men - Ungewöhnliche Helden / "Monuments Men") and Michael Gwisdek ("Good bye, Lenin!", "The Baader Meinhof Complex"). What Gerster had anticipated as the hardest part of the process became hugely enjoyable, but editing the film proved harder.
"All the directors I know told me the first cut of your film will be the biggest depression of your life," he laughs. I was like, "No, I know my material. I know my rushes. And it turned out to be the biggest depression of my life! I thought of setting the editing room – with all the backup drives – on fire a few times."
The arrival of editorial consultant Chris Wright allowed Gerster to solve the problems with tone and narrative with which he was wrestling: Wright encouraged him to prune the film to an hour before adding back scenes he really missed. This proved in - valuable advice, though "Oh Boy" was still only completed with hours to spare before the deadline for its 2012 premiere at Karlovy Vary. Days later, however, the effort paid off: Gerster won the Munich Film Festival’s Best Screenplay Award.
Little more than a year on, after an almost unbroken run of rave reviews worldwide and domestic box office success, "Oh Boy" has gathered 21 prizes and a further 14 nominations. But it’s only now that Gerster has time to contemplate his next move. Aside from working on a new script, he’s looking at optioning rights on an unnamed American novel. He also admits he and Schilling have discussed returning to Niko Fischer in years ahead, referencing how Truffaut repeatedly called upon Jean Pierre Leaud to play Antoine Doniel after their initial success with "The 400 Blows".
Whatever his next steps, it’s clear Gerster’s perseverance has paid off. It’s too early for a happy ending, but this is an upbeat, heart-warming conclusion to a winning first chapter.
Author: Wyndham Wallace
Source: German Films Service & Marketing GmbH