The majority of films that deal with German history inevitably preoccupy themselves with the Second World War (a seemingly endless source of material for cinema). Germany itself has recently provided us with Hirschbiegel’s controversial but undeniably excellent Downfall (2004) as well as Rothemund’s much anticipated study of the White Rose Group, Sophie Scholl – The Final Days (2005). However, it is also clear that German filmmakers are taking on the responsibility of dealing with the problems of their own, more recent, post-war history.
Hans Weingartner’s The Edukators is often mentioned alongside Becker’s Goodbye Lenin! (2003) due to the outstanding presence of rising European star Daniel Brühl. However, the similarities do not end there. Goodbye Lenin! attempts to cast a humanist eye on the problems of a united Germany, whilst The Edukators focuses on the actions of Sixties radicals and their influence on militant far-left groups today.
The Edukators are idealistic Jan and laid-back Peter (Daniel Brühl and Stipe Erceg), a pair of typically disaffected young radicals attempting to fight back against modern capitalism. However, there is nothing typical about their methods. They break into the villas of the rich middle-classes to carry out non-violent, neo-situationist actions under the name of ‘The Edukators’. They attempt to unnerve and psyche-out the rich owners of large houses by carefully rearranging their furniture and daubing vaguely prophetic, threatening messages on their walls. Their weapon of choice is psychological manipulation; a passive assault that serves to undermine the security of the comfortably numb wage slaves of post-war, post-unification Germany.
When Peter goes away to Barcelona he asks Jan to look after his girlfriend Jule (Julia Jentsch, soon to star as the aforementioned Sophie Scholl) who owes a large amount of money to rich businessman, Hardenberg. Inevitably, Jan spills the beans to Jule about their clandestine pranks and, amongst the heat of mutual attraction, the pair hatch a plan to give Hardenberg a dose of The Edukators. Naturally, everything goes wrong and the pair are forced to recruit Peter to help them kidnap Hardenberg as they head with their hostage to an idyllic cabin in the Austrian Alps.
Here the three young radicals are faced with a slew of physical, emotional, moral and political dilemmas that they are ill-equipped to solve. It transpires that Hardenberg is not the straight-laced corporate puppy that they thought, due to his involvement with Sixties radical groups like the SDS, and his friendship with leftist spokesman Rudi Dutschke (whose death kick-started the militant actions of the infamous RAF/Baader-Meinhof Gang).
The second half of the film could be criticised for losing the dramatic momentum that is so skilfully created in the film’s opening scenes. However, as the three Edukators disappear into the beautiful countryside with their hostage, we are presented with a more thoughtful space for the characters to come to terms with who they are, and what they have become.
This avoidance of inner-city thriller elements also allows the latter chunk of the film to become something of a study in considered dialogue. Whilst the kidnappers speak in idealised, clichéd epithets, Hertenberg defends his slip into conformity with hackneyed insights on the doomed spirit of youth. However, these speeches uncover a subtle morass of personal insecurities, confusion and ultimately the inevitable conclusion that the kidnappers and kidnapped are more similar than they could have imagined.
The exact political stance of The Edukators is intelligently non-specific. We get the feeling that the social optimism of the Sixties has been cynically subverted, the political activists now suit-wearing wage-slaves who look back with nostalgic dreaminess on the naïve optimism of their youth. It appears that these young Edukators are a contemporary manifestation of this idealism. Defeated by the pointlessness of their actions, the three protagonists slowly come to terms with the impotency of their brand of political activism, which serves to satisfy the whims of liberal, middle-class pranksters, rather than being a credible way of changing society. Like the characters, we are left feeling rather embarrassed that we found the actions of these political idealists so amusing and entertaining.
For many this will be an uneven and rather bloated affair, but for others it will serve as an insight into the modern preoccupation with commodification, including the way that modern capitalism has turned the resistance movement into a consumerist item of its own (from anarchy symbols to Che Guevara t-shirts).
Germany seems to be dealing with its past in a credible and critical way, displaying their profound ability to come to terms with their history through art. The Edukators is just the latest in a series of excellent, thoughtful and globally admired films from a revitalised German film industry.