Film Review: ‘Alphabet’

'Alphabet' Review

This long, meandering rant sounds the alarm against the capitalist agenda of modern education.

More agitated editorial than elegant documentary expose, Erwin Wagenhofer’s “Alphabet” argues that the modern educational system squelches children’s capacity for imagination, turning them into little capitalist robots engineered to compete. This may well be true, but “Alphabet” seems ill equipped to do anything more than object, despite the well-meaning participation of such forward-thinkers on the subject as Ken Robinson. Strong feelings inevitably follow any pic on the subject of education, and this one is sure to spark some lively conversations on the fest circuit, as it did following its IDFA premiere, though the disorganized docu ultimately leaves auds none the wiser.

Wagenhofer’s actual beef appears to be not with schools but with the system itself, which emphasizes bloodthirsty, profit-driven competition over the prenatal connection humans feel to their mothers. With apparent alarm, the film cites studies showing that people lose their capacity for “divergent thinking” over time, which, it doesn’t take a divergent-thinking genius to realize, necessarily follows from standardized education.

Why educate at all, bohemian French couple Arno and Michele Stein ask, when children seem perfectly happy to play. To illustrate the point, “Alphabet” depicts the Steins’ granddaughter cooing and burbling as she smells the garden flowers. The film then cuts to a handsome young man whose parents opted not to educate him, which didn’t stop him from becoming a contented guitar-maker in his adulthood.

By contrast, the existing education system prepares children for battle, leaving behind any who are deemed inadequate — like Pablo Pineda, the first student with Down syndrome to graduate from university (subject of the film “Yo tambien”). The job title “chief executive officer” is one of war, not civilization, the film argues, cynically observing a roomful of students participating in a “CEO of the Future” contest. But what about those who don’t succeed and are routed into dead-end jobs, like German security guard Patrick Kuhn? Not everyone can “win,” the film notes, suggesting that the entire social system is broken and too many of its faulty assumptions have poisoned the field of education, which perpetuates its problems.

The film opens in China, which seems all too eager to follow in the West’s profit-driven footsteps. Wagenhofer is right to question the founding assumptions of our current educational model, but he seems all too eager to tear down the walls and replace civilization with a bunch of finger-painting morons, unwilling to credit the existing system for what it has achieved (it takes just one success story to destroy his entire argument) or to pinpoint its problems with any sort of precision.

Wagenhofer traveled all over the world gathering interviews for his film, but seems flummoxed by the task of organizing them into a manageable argument, resulting in a long, meandering rant. Audiences will perk up whenever adorable children appear onscreen, as they do in an experiment showing infant faces observing a puppet-show scenario that contrasts helpful and competitive behavior. But these cute babies distract from the underlying flaws in Wagenhofer’s logic, just as mind-numbing footage designed to support one of Robinson’s metaphors — about a rare season in which flowers bloomed in Death Valley — doesn’t begin to address what it takes to make it rain.

Film Review: 'Alphabet'

Reviewed at Intl. Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (competing), Nov. 23, 2013. Running time: 113 MIN.


(Documentary — Austria-Germany) A Prisma Film, Rommel Film production in collaboration with Home Run Pictures. (International sales: the Match Factory, Cologne, Germany.) Produced by Mathias Forberg, Peter Rommel.


Directed by Erwin Wagenhofer. Camera (color, HD), Wagenhofer; editors, Wagenhofer, Michael Hudecek, Monika Schindler; sound (Dolby Digital), Lisa Ganser, Nils Kirchhoff, Tong Zhang, Daniel Weis.


Arno Stein, Michele Stein, Pablo Pineda, Patrick Kuhn. (English, Mandarin, German, French, Spanish dialogue)

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