Oh Boy won the 2012 Deutscher Filmpreis, so it comes highly recommended. I walked towards screen 3 at the Filmhouse, Edinburgh with a minute until the scheduled start time. As I approached I could see that the film was already playing. Or at least a film was already playing – it appeared to be in Spanish, rather than the German I was expecting. I must have looked surprised as the usher said, ‘Don’t worry about that, it’s just a test screening.’
It seemed strange to have a test screening only a minute before a real one.
‘When does the film start?’ I asked.
Which wasn’t what it said in my programme.
‘This is Oh Boy?’
‘No, it’s…’ and she said a name that I didn’t take in, but wasn’t Oh Boy.
‘Sorry, wrong screen,’ I said, and walked to screen 2. I opened the door and the film was already playing. Again it was not in German. This time the darkened room was filled with the babble of American-accented English. I closed the door and walked back to the corridor.
‘What is showing in there?’ I asked another usher.
‘That is…’ She looked at a list and told me a name that, as you might guess, I didn’t take in, but wasn’t Oh Boy.
‘Where’s Oh Boy showing?’ I asked, wondering if I had invented the screening.
She checked her list.
I made it just as the lights went down.
Oh Boy is a German slacker comedy set in Berlin and shot as a collection of vignettes in luscious black and white. Deep shadows are well used, obscuring faces and highlighting detail. Niko (played by Tom Schilling) is the sort of person who answers ‘Nothing’ to the question What do you do? In fact he dropped out of a law degree two years ago, and early in the film his father finds out that although he’s been paying the fees, his son hasn’t been spending them on studying. We follow Niko through a day when one of his main problems is not being able to get any coffee. Set-piece scenes with a psychiatrist and his girlfriend reveal details of his alienated life and his inability to move forward.
This film is the feature debut from Jan Ole Gerster, who studied at the German Film and TV Academy in Berlin and shot the documentary The Making of Goodbye Lenin. Here the first scene has a girl with a haircut just like Jean Seborg in A Bout de Souffle, and the tinkling jazz and jump cuts are also reminiscent of that Nouvelle Vague original. Schilling’s character even has a run in with the law, though his solution is not so violent as Belmondo’s. The Berlin of Oh Boy is shot in black and white which renders it charming – almost to the extent that it could pass as Paris.
Schilling is a pretty face at the heart of the film, trying to find meaning in his confused existence. He has a difficult relationship with his father, he knows that something is missing but he is not sure what. Things happen to Niko, he has no control over his life, no direction and no aim. This description fits thousands of people lost in the world today and the film has no answers or suggestions for how they can find meaning. Niko’s adventures are part of an experiment with the audience playing the white-coated lab assistant to Gerster’s scientist. We watch as things happen to our subject, waiting to note the effect they will have on him. Most of the time though there is no effect, Niko’s reactions are blunted and he just lights a cigarette and carries on. Oh Boy is pretty, but there is no emotion, little empathy and the story of Niko’s plight needs solutions in order to be of lasting interest. Nevertheless it is visually attractive and an elegant portrayal of modern life and for many people.