Two Germans, lost, homeless and penniless, forced to live by their wits in the urban wilderness of Tokyo makes for an interesting stop along the path to enlightenment in Doris Dorries film ENLIGHTENMENT GUARANTEED. How they got there and what will happen next is nothing so much as a gently comic updating of the old saying, its not the grail that’s important, its the quest for it. Which is to say, suffering is a good way to learn about yourself.
Brothers Uwe and Gustav, an odd couple for the millenium, bumble their way along the spiritual path without a road map. Uwe, tall, gangly and taciturn, has just been dumped by his long-suffering wife, who’s had it with his self-absorption and less-than-helpful attitude and decamped kids and furniture in tow. Gustav, egg-shaped and cuddly, on the other hand, thinks hes the model of domestic bliss, though if you pay attention, hes just as oblivious to his wife as Uwe. Uwes so miserable by the sudden slap of reality, that Gustav, putting brotherhood against his better instincts, brings him along on a Zen retreat to the Japanese monastery where he had hoped to find peace within. Uwe thinks its all nonsense, but wants to punish his wife by making himself even more miserable, as he tells his camcorder in a running commentary throughout the film. Gustav fancies himself a Zen expert, spouting pearls of ancient wisdom while failing to see their real-applications. A stopover in Tokyo sorely tests those putative skills when in short order, and on their first night there, the brothers lose all their money, their ATM card, and the exact location of their hotel. Sleeping in a graveyard and stealing food test their mettle and Uwe’s patience as Gustav continues spouting pearls, but its nothing compared to the monastery itself when they finally arrive. An austere routine of cold baths, constant cleaning, and meals eaten to a precise rhythm put both brothers at square one with a rude awakening for one of them about whos got the right Zen stuff.
Doris Dorrie obviously loves these guys, not in spite of their foibles and failings, but, oddly, because of them. Its their imperfections that provoke first compassion and then delight in their tiny triumphs over adversity as strangers in a strange land. Her depiction of Japan through western eyes is dead-on target, too. At once alien and familiar, from shopping centers to an improbabl German beer garden, she aptly reflects our culture back at ourselvesrefracted through a culture that stretches back three thousand years.
Dorrie filmed ENLIGHTENMENT GUARANTEED without a script and, unlike Mike Leighs unscripted films, there were no extensive rehearsals. The actors are given a premise and turned loose to improvise in any fashion they choose and the first or second take is what makes the editing cut. There is that wonderful element of surprise because no one is quite sure what will happen next, yet there is never a mis-step with character or story development. The trick, obviously, is casting and here we have two treasures. Uwe Ochsenknecht and Gustav Peter Wohler create the illusion of having been bickering brothers since forever, the tiffs a ritual of communication, though not one designed to foster closeness. There are those tiny moments, when Uwe tries to talk Gustav through a cleaning ritual or teases him through the correct order for unpacking his eating utensils at the monastery, that ring absolutely true.
ENLIGHTENMENT GUARANTEED is a gentle fable that unfolds at its own meandering pace. Like the road to enlightenment, it may not always be obvious where its going, but it never fails to satisfy, both during the quest and when we finally get to the grail.