Every heart is a revolutionary cell.
— Slogan, The Edukators
“Your days of plenty are numbered.” This is one of the warnings left behind by the Edukators, a pair of self-styled rebels trying to intimidate upscale neighborhoods in Berlin. They break into rich folks’ homes, rearrange the furniture, and leaves notes (“You have too much money” being another), in an effort to generate fear. If they feel violated, the victims might worry they are being watched, think twice about their next bank deposit, even want to do something good with their money. Or so goes the thinking of Jan (Daniel Brühl), scrappy, idealistic leader of the gang of two.
In order to get their nighttime work done, Jan and his partner Peter (Stipe Erceg) have been lying to Peter’s girlfriend Jule (Julia Jentsch). She thinks they go out to “put up posters,” a low-impact activity in line with their daytime activism — harassing shoe salesmen over the fact that they support a ruthless capitalist system, exploiting Indonesian child laborers. When the cops come to round them up, the agitators know the drill: a handheld camera captures the excitement and routine: the cops rough them up, toss them in a van, and haul them downtown. It’s a small disruption, but they’ve made a statement.
Things change in Hans Weingartner’s The Edukators when Jule, a waitress working to pay a debt for hitting a Mercedes, is evicted and has to clean up her apartment to get the deposit back. At first, it appears she’s living a very practical situation, while her friends explore abstractions. This distinction changes as their dynamic changes. Though she tells gentle Peter that Jan is too intense (“Sometimes he gives me this really aggressive look, really scary”), she agrees to have him help her paint. At the same time, he’s honing his crush on her (via a few sweet-romance montages), leading to a rooftop discussion of ideals (“I can’t find anything I really want to believe in,” sighs Jule). While Jan concedes that compromises must be made. “What was subversive then, you can buy in shops today: Che Guevara T-shirts or anarchy stickers,” he insists. “For all revolutions, one thing is clear, even if some didn’t work, the best ideas survived.”
Trying to convince her of his point — and win her affection — Jan reveals his and Peter’s secret, then agrees to run an “Edukators-style” invasion of the house belonging to Hardenberg (Burghart Klaußner), the man whose car she hit. Following a series of mini-crises (and a hook-up for Jule and Jan), the trio ends up with Hardenberg tied up in their van, though they don’t have much of a plan in mind. Thinking they might turn their adventure into a “’70s style political kidnapping,” they hide him in an uncle’s empty cabin, where they smoke some pot (“I thought people like you hated dopeheads,” wonders Jan) and engage in late night conversations about global iniquities, canceling debts, and terrorism; as Hardenberg puts it, his captors are “no better than terrorists: you use the same methods, spreading fear and panic.”
In turn, the Edukators see his wealth as a kind of state-sanctioned violence, as it’s only achieved by the poverty of others. Their dour judgment doesn’t quite drive the film, which shows their own lapses and excesses. The film moves slowly, tracking each step as if it’s momentous, and yet its rhythms also mirror the super-seriousness of its protagonists. The complications of everyone’s positions surface when Hardi (as they come to call him) describes his own days of rebellion in 1968 (he was a leader of SDS), and his sense of compromise and disappointment, even his feeling that he’s “in jail,” not freed by his money and power at all. “I’m the wrong scapegoat,” he insists. “I play the game. I didn’t make up the rules.”
But The Edukators makes clear that everyone plays by rules they didn’t make, then excuses themselves for not changing the world. When HArdi tries to explain how he “lost” his ideals (he had a family, had to support them, “Then one day to your surprise at the polls you vote conservative”), Jan asserts, “You must have had ideals… It’s the standard excuse for guys like you.” However Jan and Peter are reading Hardi — whoever they perceive to be “guys like” him — they never quite trust him, and that proves to be their saving grace, distrust.
Ironically, they must also contend with their own questions of trust, in coming to terms with the kidnapping, their own loyalties, their sense of possession (as in relationships and cheating) and “stuffy bourgeois ethics.” While The Edukators doesn’t offer much in the way of original thinking, it does render its philosophical meanderings in evocative, lyrical imagery — jump cuts and mobile frames, lovely natural light, pale green meadows and smoky nights — that recall both Dogme and French New Wave, both rule-breaking and rule-making movements.