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Hans Weingartner may not have picked the ideal location to denounce global corporate capitalism. The 35-year-old director is sitting in the Berlin Film Festival suite of Celluloid Dreams, the international-sales rep for The Edukators, when he condemns DaimlerChrysler and Sony for their crimes against, respectively, economic justice and his own movie. But Celluloid Dreams’ temporary office is in a building that belongs to DaimlerChrysler, and it’s just a short stroll from the Sony Center, a major venue for festival screenings.
But like the earnest young protagonists of The Edukators, the Austrian-born filmmaker wants to needle Germany’s ruling elite, not chop it to shreds. “I never liked those people who were too ideological, too radical,” says Weingartner, who arrived in Berlin soon after the Wall came down and lived among various breeds of anarchists. “Those were the violent guys. They never achieved anything. I preferred those people who used their sense of humor and creativity in order to change society—or at least be a sounding board for society.”
So for his second feature, he invented the characters of Jan, Peter, and Jule, who break into upscale homes, rearrange their contents, and leave messages such as “Your days of plenty are numbered.” That warning, in fact, is a loose translation of the German title of Weingartner’s film. But he decided it didn’t sound right in English, a language he speaks fluently.
“It’s a question of how titles sound. It’s like music,” he explains. “In German, the title doesn’t sound like a saying from the Bible. It sounds quite cool, because it uses slang. In German, I would have called it [the equivalent of] The Edukators, but it sounds very goofy.”
Weingartner was drawn to Berlin in part because opportunities for filmmakers are limited in his homeland. “I never got funded, so I had to leave,” he says. “In Austria, there’s only one television station and one government-subsidy organization. So if they don’t like you, if you don’t have the right friends, you’re not making films. In Germany, there’s more money around, more television stations. Many different institutions. Every state in Germany has its own institution to subsidize films. So if you get turned down by Bavaria, you go to Berlin.”
The director was equally attracted, however, by the ferment of the newly reunited city. “At the beginning of the ’90s, Berlin was a great, great place to be,” he recalls. “It was a short period of energy. Half of the city was empty, so there was a lot of space to realize artistic projects. I really loved that.
“I lived in a squat for one year, which was maybe the best time of my life,” he continues. “A lot of the utopia that we had in this year is actually in the movie. That’s why it’s rather an optimistic film.”
Weingartner was evicted from his squat “very violently,” and he eventually fled to Cologne, where he attended film school. But he was drawn back to Berlin. “It’s not paradise anymore, but it’s still much more relaxed than London or Paris or Cologne. Unemployment is so high and business is so low that rents have to be cheap, which gives you time to work on your films. You don’t have to work for your rent all day.
“Germany is a very bourgeois country,” he adds. “It’s little people in little houses in little cities. But Berlin is different. All the crazy people and the different people, they live in Berlin.”
Yet it wasn’t just Berlin that went for The Edukators. A critical and art-house hit in Germany—“It didn’t work in the multiplexes,” Weingartner admits—the film also attracted audiences in such diverse places as anarchic Brazil and tidy Switzerland. “It’s interesting, isn’t it?” he says. “Maybe the Swiss are more conservative, but at the same time, they have a strong desire for freedom.” (Indeed, some young Swiss were among the many European fans of the movie who stenciled “The days of plenty are numbered” on prominent local buildings.)
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The film was “also very popular with people around 50,” the director reports. “It seems to remind them of their own dream of a free life.”
Leftists of the 1968 generation are often evoked in German cinema, which regards them with a mixture of nostalgia, admiration, and horrified fascination. Many prominent contemporary German politicians, Weingartner notes, “are ’68 guys. And ’68 was the last revolution that we had in Germany. The Baader-Meinhof thing really had a strong impact on society in Germany. The state used them as an alibi to become more totalitarian.”
For the left, the director says, “there’s been a long process of picking up the pieces and regathering the force. For me, nowadays the most interesting political movement is the anti-globalization movement. The global corporations have decoupled from the rest of democratic society. They don’t take social responsibility anymore. They don’t pay taxes—forget it. Like, Siemens doesn’t pay taxes anymore, or Daimler-Chrysler.”
The Edukators’ central plot turn actually involves a Daimler-Chrysler product, a Mercedes-Benz sedan that was totaled in an accident ruled to be Jule’s fault. When the film begins, she’s hopelessly in debt to the auto’s wealthy owner, Hardenberg. On a lark, Jule convinces Jan to break into Hardenberg’s house; when the man unexpectedly comes home, the two decide they have no choice but to kidnap him. American viewers, I suggest, may be confused by Jule’s predicament. They’ll probably expect that Hardenberg’s insurance would have paid for the wrecked car.
“No!” Weingartner explodes. “No way. In reality, it’s a little more complicated. But it’s realistic, legally, because you can do a private bankruptcy in Germany but not if you did something illegal. Then you will have to pay the debts until you die.”
Jule’s plight, he reveals, is based on a debt-strapped woman he once met in Vienna. “She was so fucked-up, man,” he says. “She had no life anymore. She couldn’t have a bank account. She couldn’t go on a holiday. She was not really inclined to get a job because everything she earned went to the bank, and the bank didn’t give a shit.”
“It’s different in the U.S.,” asserts Weingartner, who recently returned from the Miami International Film Festival. “All Americans are constantly in debt. All Germans have money in the bank.”
For all the director’s vehemence on the subject, the leading topic of conversation in recent Weingartner interviews has not been politics but his film’s ending—or, rather, endings. Because the final scenes weren’t complete, The Edukators went to the 2004 Cannes Film Festival in a slightly abbreviated version that was quickly sold to many countries. German-speaking territories got the final edition, but the American distributor, IFC Films, elected to take the shorter one.
“I didn’t want to force the distributors to use the long ending,” the filmmaker says. “I felt like I didn’t have the right to do that. Also, I like both endings.”
In fact, there’s a third variation, circulated by IFC on DVD to some critics. Weingartner isn’t happy to hear that this is the one I’ve seen. “Oh, shit. I hate that version. I’m sorry. It’s not good.”
Although it’s more conspicuous in the Edukators Americans will see, both of the released cuts feature Jeff Buckley’s recording of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” The song, Weingartner says, “expresses for me, with amazing accuracy, what the characters feel at that moment. I cannot explain with words. But sometimes you have the music and you put it on your editing system, and it’s like, ‘Wooooow!’ The images open; they become three-dimensional. And this was the case with ‘Hallelujah.’ It’s as if he had sung it just for that film.”
The director got permission to use the recording by contacting Buckley’s mother. “It was really tough,” he says. “She didn’t want to. I had to promise her that no one gets killed in the film. Because Jeff Buckley died tragically, and his father also died in an unnatural way. I sent her a DVD, and she seemed to like it.”
But here’s where another Weingartner nemesis enters. “Sony America didn’t want to give it to us. They’re such assholes,” he hisses. “They didn’t give it to us for the soundtrack. I hate those bastards. If they can make an extra euro, they do it. They don’t care about art. I mean, nobody’s making money with the soundtrack. It’s really just a service for the people who saw the film and loved the music. It’s not Forrest Gump—it’s The Edukators.”
That’s certainly true, which raises the question of how Weingartner’s low-budget movie serves his stated goal of transforming the world into a better place for all. “I’m an opinion leader,” he says. “I can change things by my influence as an artist. You cannot measure this by a poll or a vote, but it’s important. I’m convinced that political films have an impact.”
Ultimately, Weingartner invokes not Marx but Jung. “I believe in the world soul. I believe we have a collective subconscious,” he announces. “And I think every film is changing the world.” —Mark Jenkins