Alles ist Eins – außer der 0

If you missed the computer joke in the title, you may struggle with this film. It’s a potted history of the Berlin-based Chaos Computer Club (CCC) who do great things and are certainly on the right side, but are somewhat Nerdy and Proud. Let’s just say that the film contains an above-average number of white males (actually, compared to today’s Hollywood films, maybe not).

A lot of the film shows video footage of Wau Holland, aka Doktor Wau, the founder of CCC. Wau is a truncation of Maulwurf (mole), a childhood nickname. I guess you had to be there. He died towards the beginning of the Millennium, but we watch him ageing, increasingly paunchy with less hair and more grey in his beard, but usually dressed in dungarees.

Early on there is an attempt to politically locate the CCC. They are children of the 1968 movement, but rejected the Marxist doctrinaire nature of some of their co-fighters. Indeed they see themselves as being against all ideologies. This is mentioned in passing without asking whether one can truly be non-ideological and if they’re not just using the term “ideological” to mean “people who we don’t agree with”.

Whatever, Wau and the CCC embraced the more playful side of the 1968 movement. Queue footage of Timothy Leary and psychedelic montages of people taking LSD. There was a clear streak of anti-authoritarianism – of indignation against the government trying to interfere in their lives. Less clear was what they were actually for.

At the beginning, there seemed to be a great affinity with the Greens, who tried to bring a cross-class wish for something better first onto the streets and later into parliament. But then the Greens decided that all technology was dangerous and open to state manipulation, and they and CCC parted their ways. Boy, I’d love the German Greens to be half as angry now as they were then.

After the initial attempt to show the political climate which produced CCC, the film gets more fuzzy. There’s lots of pictures of primitive computers which I’m sure will delight anyone who is remotely interested in this sort of thing. We also see footage from conferences which I’m sure addressed important issues, though I always felt I was on the outside looking in.

We hear of CCC’s early successes – of hacking what looks like Teletext pages of big corporations, and of causing the Sparkasse bank to divert money into their account. Which is all very impressive, but does leave you asking is that all there is? Are you really just there to pull off Merry Pranksters like stunts?

As the film progresses, more big guns make appearances. We see Julian Assange, Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning. And yet even here I’m not sure what is being asked of us. At one point Snowden says “everyone can do something – you can write a piece of code”. Well, apart from the fact that the last code I wrote was in FORTRAN that I don’t think anyone uses any more, this feels less like a call to action than a request for us to sit back and applaud those great programmers.

I really don’t want to carp. As said, CCC is clearly on the right side. But this film does little to help me understand their motivation or even what it is that they actually do. I get that Hackers are great, but who are they hacking, and what is hacking anyway? I understand that most of the intended audience will find these questions trivial but I think this is the problem. This is a film which seems to have been mainly made for people who already understand the subculture.

This is a film about a group of men (almost all men) who are outraged by the system and are actively trying to do something about it. As such, it is a Good Thing. And yet the group is self-selecting – there are a lot of references to science fiction books and model trains as if these are parts of everyone’s everyday life. You can be part of this life, or we’ll find someone who is.

The fact that I found myself incredibly bored during large periods of this film shouldn’t be a reason for other people not to watch it. This is people doing what they enjoy, and makes no concessions to anyone who may be interested in other things. It’s a legitimate way of making a film, but not one that is likely to win over many new converts.

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