Oh Boy is a day in the life of Niko Fischer (played by the diminuitive Tom Schilling): 20-something, skint and going nowhere. The award-winning German film inscribes masculinity negatively. Traditionally, masculinity has been understood in a dichotomy where male equals strong, active and rational, as opposed to a weak, passive, emotional femininity. More recently however, our onscreen heroes haven’t been defining themselves in opposition to their girlfriends and sisters, but in opposition to their fathers (a prime example is the British classic Billy Elliot, 2000).
Who has the real problem?
Throughout Oh Boy Niko finds himself up against the masculinity of the men he encounters: his father, an ambitious, golf-playing entrepreneur; his emotionally illiterate neighbour, who whiles away time playing table top football against himself; the louts on the streets who hit on Niko’s love interest. Somehow Niko can’t, or won’t, fit into any of these categories. Having dropped out of university a couple of years previously, he lacks the drive of his father, and he sees little attraction in the alcohol and football-fuelled friendship offered by his neighbour.
The result is a sense of isolation: ‘Do you ever have the feeling that everyone around you seems weird,’ he asks in the film. ‘And the longer you think about it, the more you realise that it’s not the others but you who’s the problem?’ This isolation becomes almost self-inflicted, playing itself out in an ironic, uncommunicative attitude towards others, which results for one in the end of his relationship with his girlfriend. This isolation is reminiscent of that of Tomasso, the protagonist in the Italian film Loose Cannons (Mine Vaganti, Italy, 2010) who, unable to explain his desires and interests to his family, finds himself living a lie.
Do and detach
Niko’s father’s problem with his son is his passivity. Real men ‘do’ things, right? The prince rescues the princess from her tower/witch/wicked stepmother; the stone age hunter-gatherer finds food for his family; and James Bond saves the world (it is his 50th cinematic anniversary, after all). However, Niko can’t bring himself to do anything. Oh Boy’s impressionistic style reflects the lifestyle of a young man who saunters from situation to situation, neither making any decisions nor having any over-arching aims. As actor Tom Schilling remarks, ‘Our world is about always making people do something or become someone. So passively floating he’s quite brave in a way. People argue whether Niko is an idiot, a slacker or a dreamer. He’s not a Bruce Willis saving the world!’ It’s hardly accidental that Niko has his driving license revoked at the start of the film: this is a man who has moved out of the driver’s seat and is letting someone else doing the steering. Instead of doing, he spends his time, as he tells his father, contemplating.
However, Oh Boy’s portrayal of masculinity is ultimately hopeful. Niko is infinitely more sympathetic (and emotionally capable) than the other male characters in the film. Redemption comes in the form of two encounters with equally isolated, elderly figures, proving that Niko’s shell of ironic detachment can be broken and hinting that it’s alright to not know where you’re going. Meaning is instead given to the little things in life: comfy chairs, bicycles, that long desired cup of coffee.
The man of 2012 isn’t too worried about his masculinity.
The man of 2012 isn’t too worried about his masculinity. He’ll make mistakes on the way, but they’ll be his mistakes. Contrast this with the wave of British films around the turn of the millennium, such as The Full Monty, which focussed on a disenfranchised sense of masculinity. Protagonists struggled to deal with that supposedly feminine thing, ‘emotions’. While those struggles were overcome, their very existence highlighted a fundamental crisis within masculinity. The man of 2012 has other problems. He’s come to terms, more or less, with who he is. Now he just has to figure out where he’s going.
Not all films are going all out for a new form of masculinity. The release of the latest Bond film Skyfall show the ultimate British hero being as macho as it gets. Yet even Bond seems to be getting tired of the same old routine. Unthinkably for an action hero, Bond’s marksmanship is discovered to be shaky, and there is hint of an LGBT-believing hero in a scene-stealer with co-star Javier Bardem.
The ladies’ man’s attitudes might not have changed, but society’s. Some fans have complained that Bond spends too much time ‘moping’ in Skyfall; maybe he should take a leaf out of Niko’s book.
Images: Oh Boy ©X-Verleih, Skyfall ©Sony Pictures, Video (cc)xverleih/YouTube