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Mad about the boy

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Jan Ole Gerster • Director


- Jan Ole Gerster, director of German hit Oh Boy, talks about his career in filmmaking and the making of his successful film

Jan Ole Gerster  •  Director

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 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.

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Gerster’s love of cinema developed early. Growing up in the former mining region of Siegerland, he immersed himself in movies. By the late 1990s, Gerster nursed directorial ambitions, and scoured video covers in his local rental store for credits. 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 Wolfgang Becker’s Good Bye, Lenin! [+see also:
interview: Wolfgang Becker
film profile
[2003], with which he fell in love after an early draft.“[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.”

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.

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 and Michael Gwisdek. What Gerster had anticipated as the hardest part of the process became hugely enjoyable, but editing the film proved harder.

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 Doinel 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.

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