I've lost count of the number of times that we've heard about some promising young generation blossoming in French cinema: every few years seems to bring a New New Wave, as it were. But we rarely hear of a New New German Cinema, a concerted movement that might be as furiously inventive and engaged as the early Seventies class of Fassbinder, von Trotta, Wenders et al.
Germany's few recent international hits have largely been confident, glib, soft-centred, like the wry comic lament for the East, Good Bye Lenin!, or the benignly punky Run Lola Run. So it comes as a surprise to find a new German film that sets out to be explicitly political, and to rekindle the flame of Sixties radicalism. Hans Weingartner's digitally-shot The Edukators wonders whether the old political idealism can be revived, but its gentle, trendily pallid vision of youthful ferment is strictly non-threatening - the Revolution with a Jamie Cullum haircut.
The Edukators are Peter and Jan, two young men who want to stick it to the wealthy, prankster-style, by breaking into their homes, rearranging their furniture into droll installation-art stacks, and leaving warning messages such as, "Your Days of Plenty Are Numbered" (the film's German title), or more pithily, "You Have Too Much Money". While Peter (the wolfish Stipe Ercel) is an easy-going jock, Jan (Daniel Brühl, the ingénu lead of Good Bye Lenin!) is a moody, tormented idealist, forever raging about "petty bourgeois ethics" and urging his friends to "see things in a larger context".
Jule (Julia Jentsch), Peter's activist girlfriend, shifts her affections to Jan when she joins him for an impromptu nocturnal raid on the mansion of Hardenberg (Burghart Klaussner), a wealthy businessman to whom Jule owes a ruinous sum for wrecking his Mercedes. After a bit of merry furniture shifting, Jule, high on high jinks, shrieks, "Come on Jan, let's do something extreme!" - a subtitle which horribly raises the spectre of radical Rik in The Young Ones.
Accidental terrorists, the trio end up holding Hardenberg hostage in an idyllic chalet in the Tirol, where they can enjoy the mountain greenery as they debate their revolutionary cause - a topic on which their prisoner proves rather more articulate than them. A promising, if predictable, ironic twist comes into play: Hardenberg, over a shared spliff, tells the trio that they remind him of his own youthful days as a militant. "'68 was a wild time," he says, waxing wistful about the good old free-loving commune days and causing his strait-laced kidnappers to bristle with, if not shock, certainly some incomprehension. The kids may despise this Alphamensch, but he's clearly in control now, and having a good time away from the office.
It's without doubt an own goal for the film that Klaussner's businessman proves its most engaging, sympathetic and charismatic figure, and more than the textbook social type of the Sixties survivor gone to the right. By contrast, the three representatives of blazing youth are an insipid bunch - peevish and vindictive, but barely incendiary enough to be MTV Europe presenters, let alone inheritors of the Baader-Meinhof cause. Brühl's doe-eyed, sensitive Jan comes across as a sullen prig; after witnessing a routine piece of injustice on the streets, he comes home and mopes to indie rock. As for Jentsch's Jule, she's a sweet-natured, blue-eyed accessory, along for an innocent lark and some petulant revenge on authority. Any claims the film may have to revolutionary ferocity is belied in jaw-dropping fashion by the scene in which - prior to decorating her walls with a revolutionary slogan in ketchup - Jule and Jan coyly lark around with wallpaper like happy newlyweds in an MFI advert.
Until this scene, the film has insisted on its young, angry hipness, with its nervy hand-held camera, the chilly Michael Haneke modernism of the opening scenes, and the wham-bam electronics of its credit sequence. But as soon as Jan and Jule start mooning over their enthusiasm for some soppy folk singer, the film settles into a cosy, overlong, entirely tension-free country idyll, complete with close-ups of Jule's flaxen hair in the summer sun.
The Austrian-born Weingartner presents his indictment of the System in crudely stacked terms that make The Edukators very much a teen movie rather than a plausible political statement. Jan stands alone against some ticket controllers hassling an old man on a bus; a riot squad turns up with alarming promptness during a quiet anti-sweatshop demo ("The State supports capitalism!" yells one protestor - well, yes, duh); and Jule waitresses in a fancy restaurant, serving Eighties-style yuppie stereotypes who complain because she's brought their pear liqueur in the wrong glasses.
The one interesting issue that the film attempts to address is today's sense of political impotence and yearning for lost possibilities. Jan complains that it's hard to be revolutionary when rebellion has been assimilated, when Che T-shirts are available in high-street stores: hardly an incisive argument, given that it could easily have been made, and frequently was, in the late Sixties. The past hangs over The Edukators cumbersomely, not only in its theme, but also in memories of how much more critical the old radical culture could be about itself - as witness Fassbinder's caustic 1979 satire on terrorism and its exploitation by the state, The Third Generation. For film buffs, the saddest twinge will come from a bit part: Hanns Zischler, one of the Kerouacian duo in Wenders's Kings of the Road, here cast as another off-the-peg embodiment of The Man.
Apart from a touch of modish hackerism in Jan's operations - he twiddles around with some sort of jamming device and dreams of bringing down a telecommunications centre - the trio's revolutionary activities seem detached from any real contemporary political context. They're loners, but in a way that makes them look like daydreaming amateurs rather than furious outsiders. No doubt their solitude is partly the point, but it's hard to see them as representatives of a generation, even a blank one.
Tougher casting might have made The Edukators a tougher film; it's hard to care for Weingartner's trio of bloodless revolutionaries, the Peter Paul and Mary of revolt. I hope - I pray - there's some irony in the scoutmasterish tone of Weingartner's rallying call, in his press notes: "Don't just hang out! Rebel! It can be fun!" As it is, every generation gets the insurgents it deserves: this film's trio are to the Red Army Faction what Busted were to the Sex Pistols.Reuse content