Anytown, Germany, the present. Jan is in a trainee programme in a company which seems as interchangeable as its location and its interior: a grey, cold, boring, open plan office space where employees sit by their desks, replete with laptop and headset. Jan's head of department, Tobias is a glib, slightly arrogant thirty-something who uses his sleek black Mercedes to impress his employees. And it works, too, for they've long become victims of the system that is about to devour them. Though none of them appear to be particularly content with neither their lives nor their jobs, money and the things it buys are all they care about and work towards. Anything beyond that has no room in their world. It's a world dominated by technology, by material goods we are told are worth having: I-phones, flat-screens, fast cars and expensive clothes.
Though the big shots of the company are never seen, it is obvious that in Tobias they got themselves the head of department of their dreams, someone who plays by their rules, who pulls rank with those he's in charge of and who's no qualms exerting pressure on his staff, including Jan's team-leader, Susanne, a single mother who takes care of her disabled son. The company assesses its employees by 'performance indicators' and uses its staff to spy on each other. Employees are fired at will. Unless they perform - and conform - the company will find a loophole to get rid of those who don't.
Luetter's film depicts the downside of capitalism, a nightmare-world of the survival of the fittest. The Education could be read as a counterpart to the various films that emerged as a result of the credit crunch ('Margin Call', 'The International'), and it is an especially relevant contribution in a time like this where huge bonuses are still being paid out to bankers while at the same time governments around the world cut their public spending due to extraordinary budget deficits. We live in a world where the rich get ever richer and the poor ever poorer while at the same time the number of both increase dramatically with the well known effect of a disappearing middle class. What else is new, I hear you say. True, most of us are all too familiar with the effects of the global credit crunch. But it has seldom been addressed on film. If ever. Luetter's film comes at a crucial time as the German government has just announced that unemployment is at 20 year low while the GDP is higher than it's been in years. Yet, one wonders, who exactly benefits from this much-hailed 'second economic miracle' ...? Dismissal protection is virtually non-existent nowadays. Internships where employees work basically for free and temp contracts have become standard practice, all of which are only to the benefit of the employer while the rights of employees are more and more curbed.
Luetter's film is bleak, certainly, but I don't mean that as a criticism. He tells his story in long takes, using little dialogue, the resulting images are all the stronger and powerful for it. The Education has the eerie, sometimes disturbing, feel of a futuristic nightmare scenario. But future it ain't. The scary thing is that the world Luetter so relentlessly yet absorbingly depicts is the one that surrounds us.
Dirk Luetter (left), after the world premiere of his film The Education (Die Ausbildung) tonight at the Berlin Film Festival. For Dirk Luetter's profile on FilmPortal, please click HERE.