Enlightment Guaranteed
review by Elias Savada, 23 February 2001

German filmmaker Doris Dörrie has had a checkered past with American audiences. Men (Männer) clicked with the art house circuit when New Yorker Films released it back in the mid-'80s, but her English-language Me and Him in 1987 was as flaccid as the talking penis that starred in it opposite (or under) Griffin Dunne. Unless you've caught her films at a festival or such, finding one of her dozen or so titles at your local or not-so-local cineplex has been a challenging affair. Directing from her own scripts, her comedies border the dark side and her latest effort, Enlightenment Guaranteed (Erleuchtung Garantuert), fits in her quirky mode, blending social commentary, midlife crises, road movies, and Zen concepts. Think of it as a Buddhist Sullivan's Travels featuring a couple of German fish in Japanese waters. It's subtly amusing and an amusingly upbeat exploration of relationships, in this case two brothers with disparate personal failures in search of spiritual cleansing. All familiar territory found in this filmmaker's cupboard. The road to that peaceful end is cluttered with misplaced signposts in a city far from home.

Ted Goldberg's Capitol Entertainment, the only remaining theatrical distributor in the Washington, D.C., area, has released the film here (it also handles Autumn Sun, a heartwarming Spanish/Argentinian gem now available on VHS and DVD) in the States, and the hometown market is the first to commercially feast on his latest pickup. Having screened at Filmfest DC 2000, the film is now in theatrical release at the popular Visions Cinema/Bistro/Lounge, a welcome oasis in a town begging for independent and foreign product. Enlightenment Guaranteed is just the sort of off-the-beaten-path entry that local audiences should appreciate at that venue.

Shooting the movie on digital video gives the independently made film a desaturated, documentary look. The cast, many veterans associated with the director on her earlier projects, add their own professionally realistic touches, helped somewhat by the decision to use all their given names as their role names. This is also Dörrie's first fiction piece using the new media, which allowed her lowered costs (a bare $1 million budget) and a innovative challenge. ("I would like to make a film where the crew could all fit into one car, or even better, all sit at a dining table together.") She pushes the technical envelope right from the start, opening with a late night, outdoor, wintry sequence, lit by ghostly golden lanterns dotting the countryside. We're introduced to Uwe, Petra and their boys, singing amid the snow drifts. Any illusion of family harmony is short lived, dissolving with the morning sun as the hyperactive kids wear down their sleep-deprived, overwrought dad. This ultra-focused seller of kitchen furnishings escapes for a jog to rattle his brain back into shape, his obvious indifference to his failing family unit noticed only by the crows circling overhead and a certain look in Petra's eyes. Meanwhile Gustav, a balding Zen Buddhist immersed as a feng shui consultant and devotee of Eastern disciplines, prepares himself for an extended retreat at a Japanese monastery. The two story lines ultimately converge when it's revealed the men are brothers, and the wretchedly despondent and drunken Uwe, his apartment ransacked by his wife, convinces his sibling to take him along at the last minute rather than face an empty home.

The frantic pace (and editing) of Germany relaxes as the men start their bonding sessions upon arrival in Tokyo, with a brief stopover in one of the city's hotels. But a funny thing happens on the way to the Sojij Monastery, with that omnipresent crow hovering nearby, perhaps a secret admirer or a hidden symbol. Uwe realizes his bed's too short for his large frame, but he doesn't know that will be the least of his worries. The men hit the town a-running, using neon billboards as markers to presumably later retrace their steps back to their temporary digs. They are quickly cast adrift in a land of foreign tongues, as the billboards go dark and they soak up more than a few beers that dim their bearings. Quintessential strangers in a strange land. One of them manages to capture most of their confusion with a video camera, focusing on their increasingly desperate nature. They struggle with a Hello Kitty ATM machine, call home to Gustav's wife, who's too busy having a good time in his absence to give a rat's ass about his financial condition. Briefly taken to homelessness, they find shelter in cardboard boxes among the rest of the city's dregs, their pangs of hunger forcing sad dog looks through glassed-in eateries. They steal, they beg, and eventually find the kindness of strangers in a blond Teutonic angel, Anica, who recognizes them as lost puppies and helps them on their way to the last third of the film and the no-frills accommodations at that monastery in Monzen. The stark life and rigors of meditation, prayer, mopping, and other daily rituals takes it toll on Gustav with his bad feet, while it is  surprisingly welcomed by his unbelieving brother. It is a slow-paced existence, for the men and for the audience, but broadens their tolerance to life's hectic swiftness. No doubt they'll find contentment sweeping leaves for many a year to follow.

Enlightenment Guaranteed is a double-edged title, slicing through extended families as the two protagonists seek to tape back together their strained relationship. You'll be every bit as satisfied for savoring its comic wit, subtle story, and fine cast. Now if someone else can allow some of us here in America to catch some of Dörrie's earlier, unheralded creations, I'll be even more enlightened.

Written and
Directed by:

Doris Dörrie

Uwe Ochsenknecht
Gustav Peter WöhlerPetra Zieser
Anica Dobra
Ulrike Kriener
Heiner Lauterbach

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