“You go to all these protests against exploitation and oppression, but you’re still some rich bastard’s slave. The rebellion is different now. Before all it took was dope and long hair. And the establishment was automatically against you. What was considered subversive then you can buy in shops today, Che Guevara t-shirts or anarchy stickers.”
In the film The Edukators two young German men take their political beliefs to the next level with Direct Action. To make a statement against capitalism, they invade the mansions of the wealthy, rearrange valuables and leave messages such as “your days of plenty are numbered.” While Peter (Stipe Erceg) has no compunction about a little proletariat reclamation in order to help fund their activities, Jan (Daniel Bruhl) feels that lifting a Rolex from the mansion of the wealthy makes them seem like common burglars and lessens their mission. After all, there’s the implicit idea that a burglar is engaged in an action motivated by class envy and is simply stealing the things he cannot afford. But rearranging the trinkets of the rich creates an absurdity out of their ‘value,’ and a mockery of their security of their fortress-like villas.
Peter and Jan, who are firm friends, are discreet about their activities, but when Peter goes off to Spain, he leaves his girlfriend Jule (Julia Jentsch) in Jan’s care. Partly out of revenge against a wealthy capitalist and partly to show off to Jule, Jan takes Jule on an Edukator Spree. But when things go horribly wrong, Peter is dragged into the mess, and the trio kidnap wealthy middle-aged businessman Hardenberg.
Interesting dynamics occur during the post-kidnapping phase. At first, Peter and Jan are mainly confrontational with Hardenburg, and several credible scenes occur in which opposing viewpoints are presented as conversations. Hardenburg claims that “most people are happy only when buying something new.” Jan takes offence at this trite remark and replies:
“Happy? Think they’re happy, Hardenburg? Look around. Get out of that company car. Walk on the street. Anyone look happy? Or more like caged animals? Look into their living rooms. All glued to the TV. Listening to chic zombies, speaking of a happiness long gone. Drive around town. You’ll see the filth, the overcrowding, the masses in department stores. Up and down like robots on escalators. Nobody knows anybody….But I have news for you, Mr. Executive. The system is overheated. We’re just the forerunners. Your time is almost over. Swim in your shit technology, but others are full of rage. The rage of children living in slums watching American action films.
That’s one part, let’s see…Mental illness is rising. Serial killers, shattered souls, senseless violence…You can’t sedate them with game shows and shopping. The antidepressants won’t work forever either. The people have had enough of your shit system.”
Hardenberg is not an idiot. He plays his three kidnappers by exploiting Jule’s relationship with the two men, and also by appealing to their belief system. Hardenberg claims that in his youth he was a radical, a member of SDS and knew student leader Rudi Dutschke. Hardenberg’s claim that he was seduced by capitalism strikes a deep, sympathetic chord with his kidnappers, and they soon begin to question their own integrity. Although initially Hardenburg’s fate is in the hands of his kidnappers, before long, the roles are reversed and as the situation between Peter, Jan and Jule disintegrates and the tension rises, Hardenburg becomes more at ease, more in control. As the manipulator of the situation, he seems to be enjoying himself at several points.
Ethics are at the root of this tale. While the plot teases the viewer with the dilemma of Hardenberg’s fate, the sophisticated conclusion isn’t predictable. One criticism I have about the film is that Hardenberg’s claim to be a radical in his youth is not given sufficient treatment or substantiated. After all, most people who were in Germany during the 70s would know Rudi Dutschke’s name, so it’s entirely plausible that Hardenberg simply builds a myth of early student involvement in order to generate sympathy from his kidnappers.
My personal feeling on the subject is that Hardenberg is lying about his radical past. But many people watching the film will come to the opposite conclusion and decide that Hardenburg speaks the truth and is indeed a radical recuperated by capitalist society. Being a radical in one’s youth, and then being slowly recuperated by capitalist society is both accepted and dreaded, depending on who you’re talking to. And Hardenburg offers a very plausible explanation for why his belief system changed: “ It happens slowly, gradually. You hardly notice it. One day you abandon your old car….You create endless debts, so you need a career to pay for them.” So whether or not Hardenburg’s explanation of his moral shift is true, he certainly offers a plausible and common explanation. Youthful radicalism is often tolerated by society with a certain patronizing nostalgia, and is seen as a natural avoidance of responsibility, a phase to be ‘grown out of out’ when the young ‘come to their senses.’
Whether or not Hardenberg WAS radical in his youth is germane to the entire film, and the director leaves that decision, that judgment, up to the viewer. However, at the end of the film the subtle cryptic note “some people never change” says it all–and covers ultimately both Hardenberg and the Edukators’ complex behaviour. In German with subtitles from director Hans Weingartner.