Acres of ironically perishing trees have been felled in recent years to print up the diatribes of aging former social activists lamenting the lack of similar convictions in the next generation. Today’s kids don’t get it, and even when we do, we get it wrong; almost all of those fresh-faced people protesting the WTO or the war will go home to a comfortable middle-class lifestyle of designer coffee, savings accounts and cars with excellent air conditioning. It’s all true, of course; demonstrative social discourse of the kind that dominated the 1960s seems to be as resilient as cocaine: It makes cameo appearances, but only a few die-hards make it into a lifestyle any more.
Young Austrian director Hans Weingartner also seems to be of two minds about this sea change in The Edukators, his chatty and provocative new movie about three nouveau Merry Pranksters and the trouble they find during one of their strange bourgeoisie-poking forays into German society. Weingartner loves the principles behind these characters who live to subvert the rich and powerful, but he also senses their hopelessness'and being a very good filmmaker, he sees the real story in the futility, not the nobility.
Peter (Stipe Erceg) and Jan (Daniel BrÃ¼hl of Good Bye Lenin!) seem to know they can’t change the world, so they settle for attempting to make it uneasy. They break into the homes of various wealthy people and rearrange the furniture into eccentric pyramids before leaving ominous notes: “Your days of plenty are numbered,” or, “You have too much money.” They also take off for breaks in Barcelona when their populist misdemeanors get too exhausting, and Weingartner deftly exposes these dichotomies: Modern youth activists, he delights in saying, are full'in equal measure'of good intentions and crap.
But the boys’ anarchic fun gets serious shortly after Peter’s girlfriend, Jule (Julia Jentsch), moves in and joins in their festivities. When one of their break-ins goes wrong, the trio ends up with a rich industrialist hostage named Hardenburg (Burghart Klaussner) who has his own perspective on their activism: He was once like them, he says, a radical of the previous generation who didn’t sell out, but simply bought in.
Hardenburg quickly realizes his captors’ limitations, and the film becomes a battle of wits'which unfortunately becomes a talky duel of philosophies. After going to all the trouble of digging up an entertaining suspense film in this elaborate social commentary, Weingartner seems unable to stretch that suspense to feature length. Once he sets up his young goofballs for a fall, he becomes attached to them. The film’s second half becomes a slog through dry conversations and juicy twists, none adding up to anything satisfying until a slick resolution that puts a surprising end on the debate.
In the end, The Edukators will remind you of nothing so much as the Mystery Science Theater boys riffing on those late-night commercials by the Christian Children’s Fund, urging you to save a child for the price of that designer coffee in the morning. That same empty promise'the idea that the world can be fixed by simple solutions made complex only by class division and apathy'is swallowed whole by the young radicals. Weingartner’s statement on the political disinterest of modern youth is admirable in that same oblique way, but like his characters, he just uses class war as a convenient excuse for something more entertaining than a dry old civics lesson. The Edukators is not a particularly smart or important film despite its ambitions, but it’s at least as diverting as rearranging somebody’s furniture.