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Wednesday, May 4, 2005

Who's teaching who here?

The Edukators

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)
Japanese title: Berlin, Bokura no Kakumei
Director: Hans Weingartner
Running time: 126 minutes
Language: German
Currently showing
[See Japan Times movie listings]

A wealthy family in Berlin returns to their resplendent home after a vacation. They open the door, talking about how tired they are after the long plane ride . . . and in the middle of the foyer (with a marble floor) is a towering pile of all their living room furniture. They rush inside and discover other acts of vandalism: Mom's collection of precious antique toy soldiers have been crammed into the toilet and Dad's golf clubs are scattered all over the staircase. Amid the debris they find a note: "Your days of plenty are numbered." And the family finally realize that the famed Edukators, a new breed of anti-globalization/capitalism activists -- have paid a visit. Gasp!

News photo
Daniel Bruhl, Julia Jentsch and Stipe Erceg in "The Edukators"

Despite the impact of the opening sequence, "The Edukators" doesn't run on anger; in fact, the main source of its energy is a graceful, noninsistent humor. This is the most endearing aspect of "The Edukators" -- these social activists seem a little too well-behaved to pull off a political revolution. Their very mildness poses a modern dilemma. After all, opposing camps wear jeans, often listen to the same music, watch the same TV shows, eat more or less the same food, are bothered by family and relationship issues.

In the beginning there's a scene that shows Berlin's social protesters distributing fliers in a Nike store. The customers are informed (politely) that the sneakers are made by children in Third World countries under horrible labor conditions and therefore should not be bought. But as they speak, we notice that the protesters are wearing the same kind of chunky sneakers on display in the store. And so are the customers, who dutifully inspect the fliers before turning their attention back to the merchandise.

"The Edukators" was shot on a handheld digital camera with whatever light was available. You could say that's a realist approach, but it actually serves to enhance the fashion-conscious stylishness of it all. Instead of grit, there's a hip, understated glamour. Instead of physical violence, there's clever wit.

This is only the second feature from Austrian filmmaker Hans Weingarten, but the way he refrains from making sweeping social statements speaks of a seasoned maturity. Or maybe it's just that he felt this was boring. After all, the stage is Berlin, currently No. 1 on the world map of hip cities; the main cast features the sizzling name of Daniel Bruhl ("Good-bye Lenin"); and the soundtrack is so cool (Jeff Buckley covers the Leonard Cohen classic "Hallelujah") you may actually need earmuffs. He certainly wasn't going to let anything like a heated political discussion upset the flawless equilibrium.

This isn't to say that "The Edukators" is shallow. On the contrary, the wide-eyed innocence of the characters lends it a genuine sincerity and immediacy that just can't be duplicated on big-budget films. Especially wonderful is Jule (Julia Jentsch), the sole female member of the Edukators, and the most passionate about their cause. Jule's face evokes an intelligence and spirituality that's at the same time very sexy. It's no wonder she has the other two Edukators -- her boyfriend Peter (Stipe Erceg) and his roommate Jan (Daniel Bruehl) -- going crazy in her presence. When Jule starts talking about social injustice and the crimes of multinational corporations, you can actually see the two guys' brains turn to mush. It's harder for Jan because Jule and Peter are a couple and the latter is his best friend.

The dynamics of their menage a trois moves onto a whole new level when rich businessman Hargenberg (Burghart Klausner) surprise Jule and Jan in the midst of rearranging the furnishings in his huge, gorgeous home. They alert Peter who comes over immediately, and the trio finally decide to break the Edukators' code of conduct -- no physical violence whatsoever -- by kidnapping Hargenberg and taking him to a mountain cabin in the Tyrol. Once there, they discover that their hostage is a vintage radical from the 1960s. "What happened to you?" Peter asks with disgust. "My father said that there's nothing sadder than the sight of a social activist past the age of 30," Hargenberg replies.

In another movie, Hargenburg could have been executed, but in this one an almost warm complicity springs up between the hostage and captors. In the evenings they take turns cooking and playing cards, and at night they all sleep in the one bedroom of the tiny cabin. Recalling the good old days and fortified by the mountain air, Hargenburg even starts talking about abandoning business and going to live in the country. Peter looks at him, hardly daring to believe it.

But don't worry: "The Edukators" teaches us that people aren't so easily educated, social injustice will always be around and yesterday's protesters are the paunchy homeowners of tomorrow. And in the meantime, as Hargenburg points out, "There's always love."

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