With his directorial debut, German filmmaker Jan Ole Gerster scored a huge success by making a small, personal film with "Oh Boy" (2012). The film, which is in German with English subtitles, was screened at the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center's Browning Cinema this past Thursday, and featured an introduction and a question and answer session with Gerster afterwards.
"Oh Boy" follows Niko, a boyish Berlin man in his 20s with little direction in his life, as he wanders through Berlin for a day and a night. Gerster, who spent years working as an assistant to famous German directors including Wolfgang Becker before going to film school, said that nhe looked inward and tried to make a personal film with his debut.
Niko wakes in the morning and tries to sneak away from a woman he clearly has no interest in speaking with, but is caught and gives us an immediate insight into his character. He does not want to hurt her feelings, but he's not emotionally invested enough to make an effort with the woman. He's young and emotionally insecure, but the audience gets the sense that he has a good heart underneath all of his insecurities and cluelessness.
Niko loses his license and his ATM card, tries and fails repeatedly to get a cup of coffee, and meets a lonely neighbor who immediately dishes on his marital problems. It's hard to tell if Niko is quiet and a good listener or quiet and does not care about the people talking to him, but there are brief flashes throughout the film that if he could just find his way in life, he has the potential to be a caring person.
The film hinges mostly on three key interactions. We see Niko meet his father at a country club, an interaction which reveals why Niko may be as uncertain about himself as he is. Niko meets an old classmate who he used to bully in middle school but the classmate has since lost weight and grew up to be gorgeous. We see the guilt etched in Niko over dealing with his past arrogance. Finally, Niko meets an old and possibly crazy man at a bar at the end of the night, who shares a story about his memory of what was likely Kristallnacht, and we see the long lasting effect it had on the man's psyche.
Gerster said he wanted to show, at least in part, the struggle of young people coming to terms with their identity and their future, but also Berlin and Germany as a whole, and their continuing struggle to develop a new identity. The city of Berlin in particular plays a role in the film, with beautiful shots of shops, bars, theatres and train stations all giving the feeling of constant movement, without anyone actually going anywhere.
The film is shot in black and white, which Gerster explained shared a two-fold purpose of giving the story a timeless feeling and also satisfying his desire to make a black and white movie, since he is a big fan of black and white movies.
Gerster talked at length about the personal aspect of the film, calling it "personal but not private." He looked at the early films of some of his favorite directors, and said in many of the films, the director's own life and perspective were deeply engrained in the film, even if the story isn't technically autobiographical.
The challenge, he said, was to tell a story that could be truly his own and yet would be relatable and accessible to audiences everywhere. Judging by the impressive number of German Film Awards won by "Oh Boy," including Best Film, Best Direction, Best Screenplay, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor and Best Score, it's safe to say the film resonated greatly with German audiences. And as a look into young people in Berlin, and their struggles with identity and purpose, it's a fantastic and often laugh-out-loud funny success.
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