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March 22, 2009

Enlightenment Guaranteed (Film review)

Enlightenment Guaranteed (Erleuchtung garantiert) is a German film from 1999 by Doris Dörrie about the tribulations of two middle-aged brothers staying in a Japanese Zen monastery. The brothers are played very naturally by Uwe Ochsenknecht and Gustav-Peter Wöhler.

The story is has a deep human touch, but is also light and humoristic - as light as the swinging movement of the hand-held cameras and the improvised street scenes. The first part of the film, situated in a town in Germany, is full of snappy comedy. One brother, Uwe, is a smart kitchen salesman who thinks he is doing very well, but is so engrossed in himself that he does not notice how much he is neglecting his wife and kids. So they suddenly leave him which makes him tumble into a psychological black hole.

The other brother, Gustav, is a rather vague Fengshui consultant who in his free time practices Zen meditation. He has booked a trip to the Monzen monastery on the beautiful Noto Peninsula in rural Japan for a few weeks of intense meditation practice and like his brother he is so lost in his quest for enlightenment that he doesn't notice the needs of his wife.

After he suddenly finds himself alone, Uwe begs Gustav to take him along on the trip to Japan. After some hesitation on the part of Gustav, who considers his non-Buddhist brother as pure ballast, they leave together and their first stop is Tokyo.

On their first night in Tokyo, while going into town for a snack, they get lost and can't find their hotel where their passports and luggage are anymore. The brothers spend their last money on a taxi ride in the wrong direction and their credit cards are swallowed by the difficult-to-understand Japanese cash machines.

They really are at Point Zero in their lives and even have to sleep on the streets. This is Lost in Translation to the nth degree! In Buddhism you have to go back to nothingness and discard all earthly possessions, but the situation is forced upon them rather suddenly!

First they sleep in cardboard boxes in a park, among Tokyo's homeless, but Uwe, whose practicality now comes in handy, "fixes" a modern tent. Later they meet several interesting people, such as a German woman who helps them find a job in a Bavarian-type beer-hall where they work as waiters to earn the money for the long trip to Monzen.

Next follows their stay in Sojiji, the famous Soto Zen temple in Monzen, Ishikawa Prefecture, which is like we know all stays in Zen temples to be: cold, hard, little sleep, little food. Clean the floor to cleanse your heart. Sweep the garden to sweep your mind. This part is filmed in a more traditional way, with nice impressions of the Buddhist service (this is a very special ceremony where the monks walk as if in a Noh play - joining this service alone is worth the trip to the Noto Peninsula). The temple scenes are interspersed by commentary from the brothers on Uwe's video camera, as a sort of video journal.

Surprisingly, it is Uwe who excels not only in running along the floors with a cloth to clean (Gustav is rather corpulent) but who also bests his brother in meditation practice. In a reversal of roles, he really gets the hang of it, although Gustav also struggles bravely on.

The time to leave the temple finally comes - the brothers have not reached anything like enlightenment (impossible in such a short time!) but they are both a bit wiser and have learned to accept life as it comes. Thus spiritually fortified, they return to the world.