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Tuesday
Apr152008

Gone Are the Days of Plenty

The title of this film is a little misleading, since the lessons that the protagonists wish to impart to the bloated segments of society are secondary to their own lives and choices.  You may wonder what disempowered college–age idealists can possibly do apart from protesting, dope smoking and ratcheting up petty crime statistics.  The German title, however, gives us more information: it may be translated, like when it appears in the opening scene on a sort of dunning letter, as “your days of plenty are numbered.”  Literally, it could be "the years of plenty are gone,” or, as fett (akin to American use of "phat") means both "luxurious" and "cool" or "awesome," "the cool years are gone.”  This adage applies both to the young, weak and resentful students and the middle–aged moneyed elite they seek to overthrow.  And if you are familiar with tales of juvenile discontent, you may correctly assume that our film will begin with a crime.     
 
A crime, it should be said, that is more overshow than throw.  A luxurious villa full of the finest  technology and kitschy objets d’art (much more of a rarity in Germany than in the United States) is subjected to chaotic justice.  Jan (Daniel Brühl), one of the perpetrators, outlines the scheme he carries out in greater Berlin with his undernourished roommate Peter (Stipe Erceg): nothing is stolen, furniture and possessions are rearranged, and a note is left in plain view for the returning nabobs. The note is often signed, “The Educators” (spelled with a radicalizing “k” in the English release), with the aim of having these posh Philistines “feel less safe in their high security neighborhoods.”  Peter’s girlfriend Jule (Julia Jentsch) then asks Jan, with whom she has been spending an inordinate amount of time of late, why he and Peter don’t simply steal everything and give it to the poor.  Jan astutely counters that while these rich folk (a list of yacht club members is used as a basis for attack) expect burglars, since they themselves rob society’s coffers to meet their own exorbitant whims, they do not expect righteousness.  Few things could be more frightening than having someone come into your house, play with your possessions, then inform you in writing that you simply have too much money.  Will they come around and put an end to their excessive habits, or will they resent society even more?  But our Educators are not concerned with that type of result; they want to instill the fear of a higher authority in the hearts of their victims, and with that fear a realization that the world, and the people who run this world, are unfair.        

Jule has her own problems.  A year ago she rammed her uninsured Golf into a high–end Mercedes driven by an equally high–end business executive.  Yes, the accident was both her fault and not subject to payment by her insurance company, so she legally had no claim to make when ordered to pay back the full ticket price of the totaled car.  After one year, we are informed, she has worked off almost one–eighteenth of the sum, and her job as a waitress will neither improve that percentage nor allow her to pay her rent on time.  Facing eviction, she turns to Jan for inspiration.  He tells her quite politely that although the accident was her fault, there is nothing worse than destroying the life of a young woman so that one privileged German can drive a car worth the average annual income of thirty Serbs.  She nods her head and sees his point, but what are they to do, disenfranchised and disaffected as they are?  One solution presents itself immediately, and things move quickly towards Jule’s integration.

Exactly halfway through the film, there is a predictable change of perspective.  Up to this point we have been able to side with the 'truth of youth,' of the fundamental principles of equality and fairness which all young people should espouse and with which the majority of older citizens should try to reacquaint themselves.  While broadly drawn, the characters are likeable and their cause tenable.  But those darling Educators become hostages to the plan of another party when they attempt to retrieve a conspicuous item they left behind at the house of one of those yacht club members.  This shift is necessary dramatically, for otherwise our parable of moral damnation would get a wee bit tedious.  Consequences for these actions, however harmless in essence, are as inevitable as the taxes that Jan, a consummate anti–institutionalist, laments.  The nature of man, we are told, is to be better than others.  We are also told that it’s not he who invented the gun who is guilty, but he who pulls the trigger.  The war of truisms begins, but for some magical reason it seems real.  It seems real because both sides are right and wrong, both sides are looking out for their interests and understand a part of human nature that cannot be denied.  Yet only one side is moral.  And moral doesn’t only mean saying and doing the right things, it means grasping the basic principles of human interaction and seeking fairness and equality of opportunity.  When one of their victims laughs off his guilt by saying he was not born in southeast Asia and is therefore not responsible for those who were, the rebuttals he receives make him think.  He thinks of another time.  His own youth, especially the wildness of 1968, flashes before his beady little eyes and, with that youth, the sweetness of invincibility and righteousness.  Back then he was not a top executive but a teacher, poor but happy, and totally in love with his young wife.  And those fabulous days, his best days, are all gone.     

Reader Comments (2)

"Back then he was not a top executive but a teacher, poor but happy, and totally in love with his young wife. And those fabulous days, his best days, are all gone."

Lovely. Just lovely, M. Deeb.

Days to come stand in front of us
like a row of lighted candles--
golden, warm, and vivid candles.

Days gone by fall behind us,
a gloomy line of snuffed-out candles;
the nearest are smoking still,
cold, melted, and bent.

etc etc

--Cavafy (trans. by Keeley and Sherrard)

April 16, 2008 | Unregistered Commentermelancholykorean

Many thanks. You and Cavafy (preferably together) are always welcome.

April 16, 2008 | Registered Commenterdeeblog

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