''Anyone under 30 who isn't a leftist doesn't have a heart; anyone over 30 who's still a leftist doesn't have a head." That old saw is paraphrased by one of the characters in the new German film ''The Edukators," and since said character, a former radical turned comfy yuppie named Hardenburg (Burghart Klaussner), is in his 50s, he uses it as a rationalization. To the three 20-something activists holding him captive -- aching idealists all -- it's a thrown gauntlet.
''The Edukators" itself sits somewhere in the middle, an unfashionable place to be these days and for that reason one well worth visiting. This long, talky, suspenseful, and remarkably provocative movie plonks us down with a trio of young Berliners who strenuously want to change the world. They're not exactly sure how to go about it, though, so they engage in mildly socialist pranks designed to unsettle the bourgeoisie. Before Hans Weingartner's film ends, they've become much more unsettled than their targets.
Will rearranging the furniture of rich, vacationing suburbanites bring about the revolution? Of course not, and so ''The Edukators" views its solemn monkey-wrenchers with both affection and absurdity. The key figure is Jan, a charismatic young zealot of the sort who might write poetry against the state. He's played by Daniel Bruhl, the mixed-up son of ''Good Bye Lenin!," and the actor's fine performance makes his dour character surprisingly lovable.
Jan and his angular but less angry pal Peter (Stipe Erceg) carry out their missions as if they were playing at being spies; they leave behind vaguely threatening notes signed ''The Edukators." When Peter goes away on vacation, his disaffected waitress girlfriend, Jule (Julia Jentsch), finds herself unexpectedly warming up to his doctrinaire friend, while Jan, for his part, experiences emotions the Central Committee would not approve of.
He brings her on one of his expeditions, the novice turns out to be an enthusiast, and, without spoiling too much, they find themselves with a hostage on their hands. Weingartner has already taken half the movie to get us this far, but you forgive ''Edukators" its too steady pacing and Dogme-inspired drunken-fly camerawork because you're breathless to see how these strenuously committed naifs will screw up next.
Eventually playtime comes screeching to a halt, and the second half of the movie turns into a deceptively bucolic showdown between sold-out '60s radicalism and its antiglobalist children. If the rhetoric gets overly thick and it all looks like it's going to end in a group hug, don't be fooled. Weingartner and co-writer Katharina Held like their characters -- all four of them -- too much to let them off the hook. You'll probably be talking about the ending for a while; like it or not, it carries a sting the movie very much needs.
I'm not sure whether any other young actor in Europe balances certainty and confusion as appealingly as Bruhl does; you want to smack him and be his best friend at the same time. Jentsch makes Jule both smart and unformed, a woman whose natural compassion is tested throughout the film. These two fall in love without even being sure what that is; one of Weingartner's little jokes is that '60s leftists had a much better time in the sack than their prudish descendants did. There's an evenhanded humanism flowing through ''The Edukators" that may strike doctrinaire viewers on either side of the divide as mushy, but it's tough enough for the rest of us to chew on for a long time.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.