Wednesday, July 11, 2007

A Film for All of Us

Earlier this evening a friend and I saw The Lives of Others, the Oscar-winning début of German director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck.

Without doubt, The Lives of Others is a very powerful and moving film - and one that I hope to write further about in the near future.

For now, here are excerpts from Anthony Lane’s well-written
review published in The New Yorker earlier this year.


A Film for All of Us

Excerpts from “Guilty Parties,” Anthony Lane’s review
of The Lives of Others

The New Yorker

February 12, 2007

. . . It is a tribute to the richness of [The Lives of Others] that one cannot say for sure who the hero is. The most prominent figure is Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe), yet if you passed him on the street you wouldn’t give him a second glance, or even a first. He would spot you, however, and file you away in a drawer at the back of his mind. Wiesler, based in East Berlin, is a captain in the Ministerium für Staatssicherheit, better known as the Stasi—the state security service, which, by the mid-nineteen-eighties, employed more than ninety thousand personnel. In addition, a modest hundred and seventy thousand East Germans became unofficial employees, called upon to snoop and snitch for the honor—or, in practical terms, the survival—of the state. “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” Jesus said. The German Democratic Republic offered its own version: watch thy neighbor, then pick up thy phone.

The movie begins, fittingly, in 1984. The Stasi machine still fulfills its Orwellian function, training its sights on anyone who might be construed as seditious. All the more surprising, then, that Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) should have escaped censure. He is a playwright. He is handsome, affable, and draped in a corduroy suit that must have been made in the West; his live-in girlfriend, Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck), is also his leading lady, and supporters of compulsory egalitarianism would consider her beauty an insult. Yet the fact remains that Dreyman is a pet talent of the state—“the only non-subversive writer we have,” according to Lieutenant Colonel Grubitz (Ulrich Tukur), Wiesler’s cheery superior. As for Sieland, she is, in the words of a government minister, Bruno Hempf (Thomas Thieme), “the loveliest pearl of the G.D.R.” He should know, the swine.

One evening, Wiesler attends the première of a Dreyman play. What is it that alerts him? The curtain call, brimming with a warmth that he, as a Stasi operative, will never feel? The kiss that Christa-Maria exchanges with Dreyman? Or, most wounding of all, their happiness? Whatever the reason, Wiesler decides that Dreyman, precisely because he has neither said nor written anything suspicious, must be a suspect. Kafka would recognize the logic: a man too good to be true cannot be trusted. Wiesler confides his doubts to Grubitz, who passes them on to Hempf; the upshot is that Wiesler is deputed to spy on Dreyman and Sieland—to enter their lives, like a virus, and lay waste to their innocence until it decays into guilt.

He and his team infest the apartment where Dreyman lives. As they emerge from a van, pick locks, and start to seed the rooms with bugs, the musical score—by Gabriel Yared, best known for The English Patient—keeps urgent step with their task. . . .

One of the marvels of Ulrich Mühe’s performance—in its seething stillness, its quality not just of self-denial but of self-haunting—is that he never distills Wiesler into a creature purely of his times. You can imagine him, with his close-cropped hair, as a young Lutheran in the wildfire of the early Reformation, or as a lost soul finding a new cause in the Berlin of 1933. See him crouched in a loft above Dreyman’s home with a typewriter, a tape deck, and headphones clamped to his skull. Watch the nothingness on his face as he taps out his report on the couple’s actions: “Presumably have intercourse.” How long can you listen to love being made? Especially when your only love comes from a hooker who marches in, performs, then leaves before you have even refastened your pants? Slowly, the tables turn. Wiesler steals Dreyman’s copy of Brecht and takes it home to read; he starts to omit details in his official account; and, for some fathomless reason—guilt, curiosity, longing—he lets the lives of others run their course.

Downstairs, Dreyman finds his own passivity, his tactical playing of the system, beginning to crack. A blacklisted friend hangs himself, and Dreyman feels obliged to write about the terrible suicide rate in the G.D.R. This means smuggling in an untraceable typewriter—more lethal than a gun, in the land of a controlled press—and smuggling out the copy. Dreyman wants not to involve Sieland in this crime, but she is already sunk in sin. Hempf, the government minister, made overtures, and she responded, hoping that it might safeguard her career; there is an unforgettable smear of boredom, repulsion, and self-loathing on her face as she sits in the back of his limousine, after dark, and lets his fumbling trotters do their worst. Wiesler comes to know of this arrangement, and the knowledge both curdles his respect for the Party and grants him a furtive power. . . .

Dreyman controls his characters in the theatre, but his strings are pulled by the state. His girlfriend, wanting to be mistress of her fate, is just a mistress, and not for long. (“I never want to see her on a German stage again,” Hempf says, after she summons the courage to spurn him.) Wiesler toys with the destinies of his suspects, but he is finally snarled in his own plans and dispatched to a cellar for the rest of his career, there to steam open the mail of ordinary citizens: the hard labor of a Stasi drone. . . .

It is a shock to find the action lasting until 1993. As the events of 1984 hastened to a climax, with treachery being punished on a damp street, I was already reaching for my coat. So why press onward? Why drag us into the debris of the broken G.D.R.—into the opening of the Stasi files, and the queasy afterlife of politicians and playwrights alike? Against all odds, though, the best is yet to come: an ending of overwhelming simplicity and force, in which the hopes of the film—as opposed to its fears, which have shivered throughout—come gently to rest. What happens is that a character says, “Es ist für mich”—“It’s for me.” When you see the film, as you must, you will understand why the phrase is like a blessing. To have something bestowed on “me”—not on a tool of the state, not on a scapegoat or a sneak, but on me—is a sign that individual liberties have risen from the dead. You might think that The Lives of Others is aimed solely at modern Germans—at all the Wieslers, the Dreymans, and the weeping Christa-Marias. A movie this strong, however, is never parochial, nor is it period drama. Es ist für uns. It’s for us.

To read Anthony Lane’s “Guilty Parties” in its entirety, click here.

1 comment:

Mystical Seeker said...

I thought this was one of the best movies I've seen in a long time. The idea of someone quietly, secretly, breaking out of their mold as a cog in a giant oppressive system, and the anonymous human connection that he formed, just made for a really moving story. I wasn't sure if I was going to like the postscript that occurred at the end of film, but actually as I watched it unfold I realized that it made a perfect ending to the film.

It is a reminder that we don't have to famous to be heroes. We can do small, anonymous acts with great importance, and never get the credit for what we do, and yet it still matters that we do it.