Tough lessons for The Edukators

The characters in a new German film find that rearranging the furniture is no way to change the world.

Josie Appleton

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The Edukators is a tragedy for our times. Jan, Jude and Peter are restless German twentysomethings, bursting with energy and a desire to change things. Yet they are undone by the political climate into which they have come of age, which offers few productive channels for youthful idealism.

There is no movement to join or cause to commit to. In one scene Jan talks wistfully about revolution while looking out over the city. Cars stop and start, lights twinkle on and off, people go about their daily routines without thinking why. We don’t believe that we can build the world as we choose. These are not easy times for revolutionaries, admits Jan, not now that Che Guevara is something you wear on a t-shirt: a man of action reduced to a fashion symbol, a political project to a personal gesture.

The Edukators’ chosen method of political action is more daring than a Che Guevara t-shirt, but it no more effective. They break into rich people’s homes when they are away and rearrange the furniture. Chairs are piled up to the ceiling, the stereo goes in the fridge, the antique soldiers in the bathroom sink. And they leave a note – ‘your days of plenty are numbered’, or ‘you have too much money’ – signed, The Edukators. Rather than smash up or steal possessions, they make them look ridiculous. This is a technique beloved by contemporary artists, who in their ‘readymades’ bring dissonant objects together and so make them appear washed up and pointless.

The Edukators say they want to change the system, to strike at the big inequalities that exist in society. Some earn millions and others scrape by on a few Euros an hour – that’s just not right, right? But they respond to these inequalities at the most private level. They don’t touch private property, capital, or even the way in which wealth is distributed; instead they target rich individuals, as if the problem was merely that some people are too greedy.

Rather than targeting businessmen at work, where they are making this money and exploiting people, they target them unawares in their home. The assault is deliberately pointless. ‘They expect burglary’, explains Jan, but they don’t expect to have their possessions rearranged. This is about messing with their heads, unsettling them in their most private space.

This penchant for fiddling with the symbols of capitalist inequality, rather than grappling with their underlying causes, has a long history on the left – which is partly why Jan and his friends are in the mess they are in. In the 1960s and 70s, the Situationists in Paris played out their symbolic opposition to capitalist values and American streets were taken over by leftwing theatre; at the more extreme end, these gestures took the form of Germany’s Baader-Meinhof Gang staging dramatic kidnappings and murders.

As with the Baader-Meinhof Gang, the Edukators get a heady excitement from pulling off their attacks. They leave rearranged houses buzzing with adrenaline and whooping at a sense of their own power. But their achievement is no more than that of common burglars, overcoming their fears in order to execute a successful entry and exit. The moral line between them and burglars becomes increasingly blurred.

Theirs is an illusion of power and control, so it is no surprise that things get out of hand. After a bungled job they end up kidnapping a homeowner – but they don’t know what to do with him. They hold the greedy individual who is apparently causing so much inequality, yet he’s a pathetic figure, his clothes crumpled and his glasses askew. Worse, he isn’t at all proud of being a capitalist and already thinks that his possessions are meaningless. Their theory is blown.

The acting is superb, especially Daniel Brühl as Jan. But aside from the general idea, the plot is poor, with too many unlikely coincidences and predictable twists. The writer seems to force the characters from one scene to the next. The story doesn’t emerge from the struggles of its stars, but instead is directed from above.

All the actors have striking, intense looks, which for a while helps to give them an aura of purpose even if they are unable to put that into words. But as the film progresses, their serious gazes into the distance start to resemble a pop video, especially in the scenes where the three are shot slouching in the countryside, or posing in front of a vandalised wall. This isn’t real radicalism, but radical chic, like those Che Guevara t-shirts that they so despise.

But in spite of all this, The Edukators has something important to say. It captures the shame of youthful energy that is unable to find a satisfactory outlet. This is not so much a case of ambition undone by destiny, as ambition frittered away in half-cocked plans that don’t touch reality. Yet whatever the ending, that ambition and energy remains, which in itself can give us hope.

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