Moral Politics at Play School by Tom Jennings
[published in Freedom, Vol. 66, No. 11, June 2005]
Hans Weingartner’s The Edukators has some interesting angles despite its sneering at childish idealism, finds Tom Jennings
The Edukators surf the new wave of smart, sophisticated and popular German language cinema which – even better – tackles ticklishly controversial social and political subject matter.1 Here Jan (Daniel Brühl), Peter (Stipe Erceg) and Jule (Julia Jentsch) manifest their revolutionary zest in a postmodern pastiche of cod-situationism, terrorising the upper classes by rearranging their furniture to prefigure revolution turning the world upside down. The ethics of violence loom once their playful innocence turns sour in the crucible of realpolitik (symbolised by Burghart Klaussner’s yuppie tycoon), and the spectres of Baader-Meinhoff and all the other spectacular disasters of modern ‘propaganda by the deed’ cloud the horizon. Tackling far too many complex levels at once, excessive ambition here inevitably trivialises and patronises much more than it edukates.
True, most cinematic treatments so far have conceived the Western urban guerilla purely in terms of personal conflicts and inadequacies fully determining political motivation, consciousness and action – with attention to character depth and ideology in the context of involvement in real struggle omitted in the unseemly haste to ram home the message that all resistance is futile.2 This film sidesteps such conclusions, while flirting with them – for example the only genuine activism we see is an earnestly inoffensive anti-sweatshop high street demo mopped up by the riot squad. And, whereas many of the hundreds of thousands descending on meetings of the G8 and other organs of the New World Order have already moved robustly beyond the celebratory passivity of ‘Feed the World’ charitability, concrete agendas resonating with the everyday concerns of ordinary folk have yet to crystallise. If you can stomach its contempt (and total ignorance of current radical politics), this is an enjoyable and entertaining contribution (of sorts) to such debate.
Co-writer (with Katharina Held) and director Hans Weingartner claimed to want to depict the quandary facing contemporary European youth in embracing revolutionary politics – given the death of communism, decline of the Left and neoliberal triumphalism. He didn’t specify exactly which youth he meant, and the social background and present position of his protaonists are somewhat lost in translation. Worse – and with a significance unnoticed by the critics – the film’s title mutates from the evocatively ominous ‘Die fetten Jahre sind vorbei’ (‘The fat years are over’) to the vaguely uplifting progressivism of the English release. As one of the slogans graffitied on yacht club members’ walls,3 the original emphasis appears to identify the trio’s targets, but actually refers to their political discourse itself – the edukators’ relentlessly (and tiresomely) moralising judgmentalism representing conversations with the ruling classes rather than any autonomous sentiment of what might be done about them.
The only glimmer of strategic savvy is Jan and Peter’s relish at newspaper coverage of their growing notoriety, anticipating a copycat epidemic of enforced feng shui infecting the private spaces of power.4 This is an amusing (if unthreatening) fantasy of a ‘revolutionary situation’ – though which historical agents might foster the transition from home makeover to insurrection are similarly unclear. The plot enlightens us in this respect in the transition from student pranks to serious matters of life and death, where Jule’s experiences as a downmarket femme fatale undermine the Boys Own adventure. Her humiliation by the boss and patrons of a posh restaurant compound her outrage at the ‘injustice’ she suffers, having been diverted from aspirations for a comfortably useful life as a teacher by her uninsured collision with Hardenberg’s Beamer. The ensuing ‘oppressiveness’ of damages payments leads to her dead-end waitressing, and then further blunders – hitting his pad on a whim, the kidnapping, and subsequent shilly-shallying disarray.
Moral Politics at Play School
Put bluntly, the ‘fat years’ are certainly not finished for the rich – and given their propensity for rapid-fire condemnatory statistics, the edukators would hardly be unaware of this. But the good times are precisely over for the contemporary new middle classes facing the rapid proletarianising precariousness of their previous privileges.5 Read through conventional Freudian spectacles, these late babyboomers are rebelling against the world bequeathed to them by their parents. In routine middle class adolescent fashion, their moral disgust clothes itself in rhetoric of the global poor, but its emotional force derives more from self-pity and criteria of taste and lifestyle. These are values inculcated in them by, and showing their complicity with, consumer society – reproduced also in the camera’s loving fascination with those sumptuous but emotionally frigid mansions. Meanwhile, the older generations grew up with utopian dreams of a better society, but went with the flow trying to get by – only to get slapped in the face by the infantile tantrums and highminded self-indulgence of their kids.
Then, when the power relations are reversed, so too is the conventional ‘Stockholm Syndrome’. Secluded with fat cat hostage in the mountains, our heroes are seduced by his self-effacing fatherly realism and personal charm, forking out for provisions and disclosing that, back in the day, he too was a revolutionary hanging out with the Berlin class of ’68 SDS leadership. The pace of The Edukators slows to a standstill as the utter bankruptcy of their oppositional project becomes clear – most fatally flawed from its dependence on the enemy to provide tactical momentum. At the end they waken from their hypnotic trance in thrall to bourgeois power, having learned that comradeship can transcend Oedipal complexes and the complexities of love. Again, their decision to break properly from their roots is precipitated by Hardenberg’s entirely predictable betrayal, but the upbeat denouement shows the newly adult edukators outwitting the government. And who knows, if they get round to formulating worthwhile aims external to their insecure egos, they might yet proceed to genuinely radical shenanigans …
1. including the good humour of Goodbye Lenin (dir. Wolfgang Becker; also starring Daniel Brühl), Michael Haneke’s savage dissections of bourgeois mores, and Fatih Akin’s subversive genius – all reaching beyond the various austere modernisms, elitist arrogances and existential angstiness of Herzog, Wenders, Fassbinder et al.
2. Recent examples being Marco Bellocchio’s Good Morning, Night (Red Brigades) and Robert Stone’s Guerilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst (Symbionese Liberation Army). Manuel Huerga’s forthcoming Salvador (yet again starring Brühl) may or may not buck the trend in portraying anarchist bank robber Salvador Puig Antich (the last Spaniard garrotted under Franco).
3. along with strictures such as ‘You have too much money’ (duh!).
4. the results of which suggestively resemble so much contemporary installation art.
5. see contributions to Mute, issue 29, which usefully outline European ‘precarity’ theory and practice so far (www.metamute.com).