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Rebels who move the furniture

The German rebel is back in the movies. But what is his mission? By Adam Krzeminski

Pretty soon, Germans will celebrate the two-hundredth anniversary of the death of Friederich Schiller: roughly the equivalent of us Poles celebrating a Slowacki jubilee. So there’s a wave of features about the father of German idealism rolling through the German media, along with some modern repudiations. These include debates on a very German issue: when do the heroes of "The Robbers", who are noble terrorists, become bandits? And the answer is not once upon a time in the eighteenth or nineteenth century, but quite recently. Types like Ulrike Meinhof and Andreas Baader from the leftist Red Army Faction, for instance. And alternatively: when will the Marquis of Posa from "Don Carlos" stop begging the prince to introduce freedom of speech and stop being hampered by the weakness of German revolutionary protest? Once again, it’s not about some wooden characters from the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries, but about how the Germans behaved towards totalitarianism in the twentieth. It’s as though we were to compare the story of Slowacki’s vacillating Kordian with the imposition of martial law in 1981 in Poland.

Anniversaries usually pass without leaving much of a mark, but the fundamental themes of national cultures remain, trailing through the generations in various guises, even if the creative minds of the day aren’t always aware that they’re imitating the classics. In the post-modern kaleidoscope, the coloured spangles of the same battered myths keep rearranging themselves – in literature, theatre and film – into new and ever less reliable patterns.
There was a moment in post-war West German reality when the Marquis of Posa stopped asking his superiors for anything, and went to join the Robbers. However, like Schiller’s Moor brothers, they weren’t quite so sure of themselves after all. And now the German rebel is back like a shadow in film and literature, wondering if his revolt makes any sense.

Several of the latest German films– some of which are now on our cinema screens – portray various facets of German revolt, rebellion or alienation at the very least. Here are some examples: "The Edukators" (originally entitled The Years of Plenty are Over), "The Final Days of Sophie Scholl", "Rosenstraße", "Napola", and also, to some extent, "Head On". All of them are about rebelling. In "Head On" it’s the rebellion of a German Turkish woman who no longer fits either the European or the Anatolian norm. "Rosenstraße" is the carefully, but rather statically told story of the silent rebellion of some German women who in 1943 doggedly besieged the building their Jewish husbands had been deported to. "Napola" is a conventional film about an elite Nazi school; on the one hand it’s patently fascinated by the Fascist aesthetic, while on the other, saves itself with the simple thesis that even there, a boy with character could break out of the trap, discard his privileges and return to normal society naked, but with his dignity intact. And finally "Sophie Scholl", brilliantly played by Julia Jentsch, is the story of a student who belonged to the "White Rose" organisation, and who in February 1943 distributed leaflets in the lobby of the university in Munich, for which she was guillotined although she could have saved herself if she had distanced herself from her brother during her interrogation.

Scenes from Hans Weingartner's "Die fetten Jahre sind vorbei" (The Edukators) with Julia Jentsch, Daniel Brühl and Stipe Erceg

In "The Edukators", thirty-year-old Austrian director Hans Weingartner makes fun of the delusive manifesto of his own generation – a generation that has no sublime future ahead of it. After all, you can buy Che Guevara T-shirts in every other boutique these days, and every new revolutionary agenda is nothing more than a citation from a long line of failed agendas offered by one of its predecessors. He also fires a broadside at the 1968 generation, which set out to rebel against its parents and change the world. But eventually the 68ers started building careers, and now they deserve to be hauled across the coals.

But that’s no longer possible either, because all the revolutionary ideologies have been used up and locked away in museums, multi-media exhibitions and cult shrines. Even the Red Army Faction has its own exhibition in Berlin, where you can see prison messages smuggled out by terrorists serving life sentences and documents relating to the kidnapping (and murder) in 1977 of the head of the German employers’ union, former SS-man Hanns Martin Schleyer.

"The Edukators" tells the tale of a ludicrous pseudo rebellion. Twenty-year-olds Jan (Daniel Brühl) and Peter (Stipe Erceg) fight against global injustice by breaking into luxury Berlin villas, but they never steal or destroy anything – they just rearrange the furniture. They put the Meissen pottery in the toilet bowl and the stereo stack in the fridge, and they make pyramids out of the sofas and lamps. Next to their anti-capitalist installations they leave a warning message: “You’ve got too much money”. Signed – entirely in the spirit of the Schillerean school of aesthetics– “Entitled to educate”.

And they’d probably have gone on playing these games for ever, if Jule (Julia Jentsch) hadn’t appeared on the scene. The classic love triangle breaks up the team of idealists who want to put the world right. Their operations become chaotic, and finally they slide into terrorism. Caught in the act by the owner of one of the "refunctioned" villas (that’s what they used to say in the jargon of the ’68 generation), they kidnap him and take him to the Tyrol in a clapped-up old mini-bus. The post-modernist assault on the privacy of the rich suddenly turns into some ironical citations from the youth revolt of the 1970s: terrorism, the Red Army Faction, police manhunts and ideological debate. Except that it’s all a sham.

Jan and Peter are not determined "children of Hitler", and the millionaire they kidnap isn’t a former SS-man, but a veteran of '68, and even a friend of the youth idol of that era, Rudi Dutschke. Kidnappers and victim hold lengthy discussions on global injustice, free love, the pointlessness of terrorism and the ’68 generation’s betrayal of its revolutionary ideals.

Filmed and acted in a laid-back way, this film was well received as a mockery of modern rebellious posturing devoid of any sort of ideology. But there were also plenty of highly critical voices. Gustav Seibt, writing in Süddeutsche Zeitung, called "The Edukators" a brazen con trick and a brutalist popularisation of petit-bourgeois resentment of the rich. He is offended by the film’s political message that sanctions the "school of evil" which teaches that disturbing people’s privacy is just a symbolic act. After all, says the outraged Seibt, everyone knows that break-ins cause trauma, just like rape. At bedrock the film is patched together, falsified "moralising mucus". It doesn’t show the wild, dangerous life Jule yearned for in her adolescent dreams; all we get here is "the poor man’s fascism", which involves idealising the conflict between the generations, even if it’s only a sham.

Why leap to fascism? we could respond to Seibt. Does declaiming romantic odes to youth, or sighing for second-rate Robin Hoods who impose law and justice by force, share any of the reflexes of the boys from the SA (Sturmabteilung – the Nazi storm troopers) or the Baader-Meinhof gang? No, says Seibt, what’s disgusting about this film is the Nietzschean self-justification of rebellion for the sake of rebellion, without any morality at all. If these young offenders don’t die young, they will be driven by impulse to become merciless bosses. That’s the crushing verdict on the cult film of a generation that feels sorry for itself because it’s been deprived of any sort of revolutionary utopia.

Scenes from Fatih Akin's "Gegen die Wand" (Head On) with Sibel Kekilli and Birol Übel

You don’t need a utopia for a rebellion – all you need is to get caught in the wheels of two cultures that co-exist without fitting together. Just as "The Edukators" rebellion is conceived in Schillerean style, another film that’s also on our screens right now, "Head On" by Fatih Akin, portrays the psychological truth about Turkish-German immigrants, victims of the everyday cultural conflict between Hamburg and Istanbul.

Scenes from Fatih Akin's "Gegen die Wand" (Head On) with Sibel Kekilli and Birol Übel

This rebellion is a melodrama. Two failed suicides enter a marriage contract in order to support each other in the sticky worlds of Turkish family life and in cold Europe. She is rebelling against the anachronistic morality of her parents, and he against the petit-bourgeois promise of happiness. Before they realise that they love each other, their drama of envy leads to an escalation of frenzied violence – he becomes a murderer, and she is raped and stabbed. Their rebellion ends, like their love, in disaster; he comes out of prison and ends up alone, while she, now married to a man who has picked her up off the streets, keeps their child.

Scenes from Fatih Akin's "Gegen die Wand" (Head On) with Sibel Kekilli and Birol Übel

After "Goodbye Lenin" and "The Edukators", "Head On" is now Germany’s most famous current film. In 2003 it won a Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, and then a European cinema prize. It got extra publicity through the revelation in tabloid newspaper Bild that Sibel Kekilli once acted in porn films, but also through all the fuss about Muslim headscarves, honour killings within Turkish families of girls who want to live like Europeans, the existence of parallel German and Turkish societies that hardly have any contact with each other, and the discussion about how German culture is imposed on immigrants.

The years of plenty are over for the Germans (as the original title of "The Edukators" says). But not the way Weingartner suggests, as he enviously sighs for the great ideological debates of the past, the genuine revolution of '68, or the real temptations of the Hitler Youth generation, as depicted in Dennis Gansel’s "Napola". Weingartner seems to be agonised by the fact that today’s twenty-year-olds are the "used car generation", voyeurs and poseurs who have nothing to express but a lack of confidence and narcissism full of envy.

The years of plenty are over for the Germans, not so much because the model of the German social state, so shiny until quite recently, has worn out, but because the ideologies that drove the social dynamic and energy of the younger generation have burned out. There’s resentment towards the ’68 generation, or a fascination – thinly disguised by political correctness – with their grandparents’ generation, which really did commit some serious sins, but at least had a fanatical belief in something, then later lost that belief and managed to grapple with the phantoms of their youth…

Scenes from Dennis Gansel's "Napola" with Max Riemelt, Tom Schilling, Jonas Jägermeyr and Leon Alexander Kersten

And so these beautiful thirty-year-olds are playing with toys that are not their own, rummaging about in their family albums and imagining – like Dennis Gansel, the thirty-year-old director of "Napola" – that it’s possible, partly out of curiosity, to shout "Heil Hitler!", because they’re in a position to cast off their uniforms in time and leave the Third Reich as easily as they can leave the cinema.

Yes, of course you can leave the cinema, but German history is harder to abandon. The Schillerean tragedy of the Germans, of the unsuccessful revolt against the Demon, the tragedy of the noble robbers, who ultimately turn out to be common murderers, is still going on. We are accustomed to seeking out German recidivism in every gesture, shout or citation drawn from the past. This may be an error. Escape into the past is usually, for us as well, a symptom of helplessness in the face of history. And some of the smarter experts on Germany regard confident renationalisation and self-pity in German public debate as a symptom of weakness, not strength and arrogance.

Scene from Marc Rothemund's "Sophie Scholl" with Julia Jentsch and Fabian Hinrichs

Even Marc Rothemund’s moving film, "The Final Days of Sophie Scholl", about a protest against the war and the Third Reich staged by a handful of Munich students, is affecting because of the ineptitude of the students’ actions, their noble, Schillerean pathos (they actually quoted Schiller in their leaflets), and also because of the classical dimension of the real tragedy they’re enacting. Sophie could have saved herself, but she goes to the guillotine like Antigone, rather than abandon her brother in his execution.

This is a completely different facet of German rebellion, a hopeless gesture of humiliation that shows great strength of character, rather than the thoroughly conceited Baader-Meinhof episode, that dismal repeat of Schiller’s "The Robbers" in real life.


This article was originally published in Polish in Polityka on 23 May 2005 and in German in Perlentaucher.

Adam Krzeminski, was born in West Galicia in 1945 and has been editor of the magazine Polityka since 1973. He is one of Poland's leading journalists and chairman of the Polish-German Association in Warsaw.

Translation: Antonia Lloyd-Jones

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