Marshalling their collective critical acumen, the FEDEORA jury for the 14th Bratislava Film Festival came to the unusual decision that not one, but two, excellent films deserved to win the FEDEORA award for best film. There was too little between the films to favour one over the other and so the jury unanimously concluded that the award should be shared. Further confirmation of this arose from the fact that there was an interesting synergy between the two films – one focussed on a journey of youth while the other focussed on a journey of old age. In this, they would have made an interesting double bill in the glory days of repertory cinemas. The two winning films were Epilogue (Hayuta ve Berl) directed by Amir Manor and Oh Boy! (Ty kokso!) directed by Jan-Ole Gerster. This article concentrates on the latter as the former has been covered by my fellow juror, Gidi Orsher in an accompanying piece.
Jan Ole Gerster’s film, Oh Boy! takes a wry look at a young man, Niko Fischer (impressively played by Tom Schiller) as he traverses across Berlin – a Berlin of alienated people and places not usually seen in the tourist brochures. He is an unemployed University law student hailing from a wealthy family although as the audience learn, his father is about to cut off his allowance having discovered that is son has not actually attended classes in two years. “What have you been doing for the last two years?” his befuddled father asks. “Well… thinking” he replies. Now with no means of support we follow this Candide-like figure as he carries on thinking and pondering his future. This he does in the company of an actor friend, as they drink and carouse – actions which find them in a variety of slightly surreal and absurd situations. They sit in on the set of another actor friend who is playing the part of a sentimental Nazi soldier in an unlikely melodrama.
They attend an avant-garde performance piece one of whose performers is a formerly rotund girl who Niko had made cruel fun of when she was younger – thoughtless actions which drove the depressed girl to attend a boarding school for fat girls. But now she is very attractive and as she at first wants him to have some sort of therapeutic sex with her, desire is soon thwarted and an odd kind of revenge is served up. Other small vignettes are stitched into the narrative as the story comes to its sensitive and touching finale – another tale involving Germany’s Nazi past. In this set-piece alone it is very instructive to study the various post-war generations addressing of the war years. Gerster has chosen two paths, the reinvented television soap opera-ish historical view, and the poignant first-hand survivor view of history. And very telling and interesting it is this dual approach to the nation’s collective historical psyche.
But the film is also a beautifully paced – and performed – cinematic text with a reflective and moving series of scenes which add up to an impressive and very confident first film. It took a bold and assured directorial hand by novice filmmaker Gerster (who wrote the excellent screenplay as well) to decide on the visual style –it was remarkably shot in black and white – and to rein in the plot progression in order to allow generous amounts of shooting time for the story to unfold. A most impressive control is displayed by the director in all aspects of the film. His choice of lead actor, Tom Schilling, was inspired and Schilling turns in a nuanced, balanced and finely tuned performance. He makes the character sympathetic and charming while subtly hinting at his existential dilemmas. Even the opening scene is excellently judged as our (anti)hero starts his day by rising from a bed shared with his girlfriend who he is to separate from upon exiting her flat. A scene ensures between the two and as the camera focuses on this guilt-ridden and uncertain lone figure sitting at the end of the bed, the title, Oh Boy! slyly appears on the screen over-writing the shot. Then the credits role as we begin our long days journey into night.
In all of this, some interesting cinematic spirits are being channelled here. The flavour of those wonderful counter-culture films of the 60s and 70s are much in evidence. The anti-hero, the existential angst, the derive, the moral ambiguity of those days are all evoked. The director clearly loves – and knows – his cinematic antecedents. The spritely jazz score (by The Major Minors), the shooting of the film in black and white, the off-beat notes in the script are all redolent of nouvelle vague and American maverick cinema. The ghosts of the likes of Truffaut, Rafelson, Wenders, Allen, Salinger, Ashby, early Altman and Scorcese are all in the DNA of this film. In conversation with the director I mentioned that his film induced a deja-vu of Five Easy Pieces to me and he lit up and agreed that this was a favourite film of his. So there it is, a real winner of a film from a young director of obvious talent, much promise and with a great future ahead of him. It is a pleasure to hop aboard his early career train.
Oh Boy! has subsequently picked up a host of awards at various film festivals for direction, acting and script, which is of course well-deserved and I only hope that the reluctance of distributors in English-speaking territories to pick up foreign language films will not limit it’s market possibilities as this movie has something to say to many audiences – as well as being damned enjoyable.
James Evans, U.K.