Another Brick in the Wall: Five German Movies About Disillusioned Youth

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Every generation is faced with its own set of sociopolitical issues. In the 1960s, students and seekers of peace took to the streets to protest the Vietnam War. In 1961, Germany, a country that had already suffered at the hands of one of the world’s most perverse dictators, was divided into East and West, separating thousands of families. Any attempt to escape to the other side of the Berlin Wall ended in severe punishment or even death. It was only inevitable that disillusioned youths would rise against a corrupt, broken and immoral system in the hopes of being heard and changing the world for the better.

We’ve compiled a list of five movies that concentrate on young German adolescents with strong ideals who are steered against a capitalist government and everything it stands for. This list acts as a reminder that, while we all may be “just another brick in the wall,” we can build a solid foundation—a solid structure, brick by brick—to stand up against a society and a generation that is speedily steering toward the wrong course. The Edukators learned from the Baader-Meinhof gang’s mistakes, Free Rainer recognized a brainwashing scheme in what we call entertainment, and Fatih Akin taught us about the dangers of cross-cultural conflicts and the absurdity thereof. What’s your move?

5. Free Rainer – Dein Fernseher lügt (Reclaim Your Brain) (2007)
Director: Hans Weingärtner

Tune in to daytime TV and you’ll have a choice of exactly three different genres: talk shows, game shows and soap operas. Rainer is a TV producer who knows exactly what people want: the crap mentioned above. Thanks to his understanding of people and their viewing habits, the private channel TTS has very high ratings, bringing Rainer increased success in his field. But the TTS environment is a cold one, where employees care more about their respective ambitions than their fellow human beings. In order to cope, Rainer turns to cocaine. One day, a young woman crashes into the side of his Jaguar XK8 at full speed and with full purpose: Her name is Pegah (Elsa Sophie Gambard), and a detailed report once written by Rainer drove her grandfather to suicide. This was her form of revenge.

As doctors work to reanimate him, Rainer has strange dreams and nightmares that ultimately lead him to the conclusion his work at TTS has contributed to the medialen Volksverblödung (medial delusion of the public). When he finally finds his strengths back, he teams up with Pegah on a mission: to learn exactly why trash TV is so popular. They go straight to the source, namely the Institution for Media Analysis (IMT), which measures viewing rates with an analyzer unit. Rainer manages to pocket one and kidnaps Phillip (Milan Peschel), an IMT employee with extreme social anxiety. Together they discover the statistics aren’t accurate; several social groups have been left out of a viewing poll. Rainer, Pegah and Phillip hire a team of unemployed workers to conduct phone interviews to establish in which households the analyzer units have been installed, then follow up by visiting the respective homes and switching IMT’s measuring device for their own manipulated device. Their hope: Send TTS’ programs to the cellar and increase public interest in educational fare such as documentaries and live discussions. They succeed, but not without encountering a series of problems along the way.

With Free Rainer, director Hans Weingärtner shows the public exactly what influences viewing rates. During his research, he found that households had indeed been equipped with analyzer units but the system had several flaws:

“The households of foreigners are not equipped with these units. The 20 percent of Germans that do not pay the central radio and television toll are not recorded. Only a fraction of secondary TV units are recorded, so hardly any youth preferences are documented. There are a lot of weak points. Why the advertising agencies put up with this, is a mystery to me. I have spoken to several people responsible for this and the tenor stays the same: It’s always been this way, there’s no other solution.”

4. Gegen die Wand (Head-On) (2004)
Director: Fatih Akin

Cahit (Birol Ünel) is German-Turkish but seems to have distanced himself from his Turkish background. He refuses to speak about his past and no longer communicates in his mother-tongue. Following the death of his wife, he lives on a diet of alcohol and cocaine, spiraling further down a path of self-destruction until finally he attempts to end his own life by crashing his car into a wall at full speed. On suicide watch in the hospital, he meets Sibel (Sibel Güner), a young Turkish girl who feels oppressed by her traditional family. Like Cahit, she also saw suicide as her only option to escape her dreary life. Sibel wants to do her own thing, enjoy the same freedoms as all the other girls around her: “I want to live, I want to dance, I want to fuck. And not just one guy.” The only option for living the life she wants, free of strict rules and regulations, is to agree to a marriage of convenience. Cahit seems the perfect fit.

Sibel and Cahit wed and live separate lives, even though they exist under the same roof. Sibel takes full advantage of her newly found freedom, partying, sleeping around—letting loose after a lifetime of being bound to her religious background. But as time goes on, Cahit realizes he’s in love with her and finds it increasingly hard to watch her go through a series of meaningless one-night stands. One evening, one of her conquests provokes Cahit by throwing him a wad of money in return for Sibel’s sexual favors—as if Cahit were her pimp. Cahit loses his cool and ends up killing the man. He is sent to prison and Sibel is disowned by her family. Finally able to admit that she too has feelings for Cahit, she promises to wait for him and starts a new life in Istanbul. Unfortunately that new start has a bitter ending…

Although the love story between Sibel and Cahit is central to this film, the deeper subject matter of conflicting cultures and morals is what really makes Gegen die Wand, and gives viewers a better understanding of what it means to be trapped between two worlds.

3. Der Baader Meinhof Komplex (2008)
Director: Uli Edel

Much has been said and written about the RAF (Red Army Fraction), the far-left militant group that shook up Germany between the late ’60s and ’70s, but it was Uli Edel’s film that gave people insight on the main personalities behind the infamous terrorist group. Based on the book by Stefan Aust, Der Baader Meinhof Komplex tells the story of the RAF in a sober, authentic manner. Cinematographer Rainer Klausmann insisted on using natural light and granting the actors as much freedom of movement as possible, and the approach is clearly felt, especially in action-packed scenes. The storyline begins in 1967 with the demonstration against the performance of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi in West Berlin’s Deutsche Oper (Opera House). During the protests, police inspector Karl-Heinz Kurras shoots university student Benno Ohnesorg—for no apparent reason. The same thing happens to Rudi Dutschke, a spokesperson for the Vietnam-Congress. For a young generation already enraged by its country’s politics, this final straw initiates further protests against companies (in)directly supporting the Vietnam War, including the Axel-Springer publishing house, responsible for one of Germany’s most debated newspapers, Die Bild.

In an aggressive attempt to protest the Vietnam War, three students decide to torch two shopping malls in Frankfurt. Shortly before the flames erupt, a woman calls the press agency with the warning: “There’s going to be a fire in the Schneider and the Kaufhaus mall. This is a political act.” The people responsible for this act: Andreas Baader (Moritz Bleibtreu), Gudrun Ensslin (Johanna Wokalek) and Thorwald Poll (Johannes Suhm). Political journalist Ulrike Meinhof (Martina Gedeck) covers the trial of the trio, who are released on probation until the jury decides their fate. During this period Ulrike gets to know Baader, Ensslin and Poll and, impressed by their idealism, joins forces with them. Now known as the RAF, Meinhof, Ensslin, Baader and co. undergo military training at the Fatah camp and up their political ante by robbing banks and planting homemade bombs. In 1972, the main RAF members are arrested and sent to the maximum security unit in Stuttgart-Stammheim. Following a hunger strike, RAF member Holger Meins (Stipe Erceg) dies, and Ulrike Meinhof commits suicide on May 9, 1976. But the RAF does not die with them—the second generation RAF continues on a path of violence and floods the headlines with the kidnapping and murder of Hanns-Martin Schleyer, the president of the Employer Association. On October 18, 1977, the remaining members of RAF’s first generation commit suicide on what is now dubbed the “Todesnacht von Stammheim” (Stammheim’s Night of Death).

Martina Gedeck delivers an outstanding performance in her role as Ulrike Meinhof, mimicking Meinhof’s soft-spoken but charged dialogues and her distanced body language perfectly.

2. Die Welle (The Wave) (2008)
Director: Dennis Gansel

Rainer Wenger (Jürgen Vogel) is one of those cool teacher types who lets his student address him by his first name and used to squat buildings in Berlin-Kreuzberg. He believes in an anti-authoritarian approach to teaching and shares a great connection with his students. During a project week, the school focuses on the topic of state policy and each class is assigned a certain theme around which to work. Rainer had hoped he and his class would explore the concepts of anarchy but, instead, the school director assigns his class autocracy. The students are less than thrilled about having to study this exhausted theme once again and are under the impression there are no more dangers of a dictatorship in Germany, so Rainer decides to put this theory to the test. He starts with simple but effective changes: The classroom seating order is altered so that every student faces Rainer directly, and he makes them stand up when called upon, insisting on short, snappy answers. The students react positively and seem to show a lot more engagement and motivation. At this stage of the experiment, they still have a right to vote for or against these changes. Rainer soon takes it to the next level: The students are all asked to wear the same uniform (white shirt) to distinguish themselves from “opponents.” This soon leads to conflicts inside and outside of school, since Rainer’s class has found a sense of solidarity in the experiment they have named “Die Welle” (The Wave).

Suddenly, students like Tim (Frederick Lau), who was always an outcast and had no respect whatsoever from his fellow classmates, find a new sense of purpose and status within this system. The Wave starts reaching beyond the school walls—a logo is designed, a salute introduced and a hostile stance taken against all those not following The Wave. Confrontations turn violent. Things are spiraling out of control but Rainer doesn’t seem to understand just how much of an impact his experiment has had on his students and his immediate environment. His wife Anke (Christiane Paul) accuses him of enjoying his role of the “Führer” too much. When he finally realizes the need to put an end to the experiment, he gathers his students, hoping to prove his final point: He commands a member of The Welle to escort an opposing student to the stage, where Rainer lashes out at him, calling him a traitor. He then turns to his students and asks them what made them bring the opponent forward. The answer: “Because you said so.” This raises Rainer’s next question: If I had asked you to kill him, would you have done so, too?

Die Welle is based on the 1967 experiment The Third Wave, conducted by history teacher Ron Jones and his class at Cubberley High School in Palo Alto. As is depicted in the film, the Third Wave experiment had a shocking outcome that manifested just how easily people can be manipulated.

1. Die Fetten Jahre Sind Vorbei (The Edukators) (2004)
Director: Hans Weingartner

The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer—such is the reality of the world we live in, and it’s fucking tragic. Peter (Stipe Erceg) and Jan (Daniel Brühl) are of the same opinion and come up with a cunning way to educate those who bathe happily in their money while the less fortunate struggle with finances, high rent prices and minimum wage. Peter once worked for a security company and installed alarm systems in Berlin’s elite neighborhoods. The experience taught him a thing or two about alarm systems and their weaknesses—something he is more than happy to exploit. Peter and Jan take it upon themselves to teach the rich a lesson, breaking into villas to rearrange furniture and alienate luxury articles without actually stealing anything. Their goal is to unsettle the inhabitants and make them think about their materialistic tendencies by leaving loaded messages like, “The days of plenty are over” and “You have too much money.”

Peter’s girlfriend Jule (Julia Jentsch) knows what it’s like to be trapped in a never-ending cycle of debt and all that accompanies it, thanks to an accident in which she crashed into a fancy BMW. The outcome? A €10,000 debt that will take her roughly eight years to pay off. Along with her studies, she works in an upscale restaurant where she is constantly forced to put up with diners’ arrogant and despicable behavior. She is fired upon getting caught smoking in the kitchen and, to make matters worse, her landlord evicts her for late rent. With nothing but worries on her mind, she decides to cancel the trip to Barcelona she had planned with Peter and, instead, concentrates on leaving her apartment in top condition in hopes of getting her deposit back. Jan offers to help her, and while they’re painting and renovating they strike up a bond. Jule is unaware of Peter’s and Jan’s nightly roles as “Edukators,” but upon hearing Jule’s story, Jan lets her in on their secret. He takes her to the neighborhood they’ve been surveilling and Jule promptly finds out that Hardenberg (Burghart Klau?ner), the owner of the BMW she is paying off, lives in one of the villas. Excited by the prospect of revenge, she convinces Jan to break into his house. When their attempt to sink Hardenberg’s designer couch in his indoor swimming pool lands Jan and Jule in the water, they share their first kiss. Exhilarated, they return home, only to realize Jule lost her mobile phone in Hardenberg’s house. They go back, surprised by Hardenberg in the process. Hardenberg recognizes Jule but, before he can act, Jan knocks him unconscious and brings him to their van.

Jan and Jule ask Peter for help and set off to a lonely hut in the Austrian Alps, holding Hardenberg hostage—in a nonviolent manner, of course. As it turns out, Hardenberg isn’t quite what they had expected; he was once pretty cool, a part of the Socialist Student Union in the late ’60s and a good friend of Rudi Dutschke (see Der Baader-Meinhof Komplex). The kidnapping situation ends amicably and, for a moment, one might actually be tricked into believing Hardenberg learned his lesson from the young Edukators.

Weingartner was an activist himself back in the day, so this film is quite personal. He purposely decided against the use of violence in the Edukators’ stunts and quotes the Baader-Meinhof gang in saying, “Violence only makes the system stronger.”