Saturday, April 10, 2010

Movies I'm Watching: The Lives of Others

How long has it been now? Almost three years? Yes, going on three years since someone recommended The Lives of Others to me. It's taken me this long to see it. I finished watching it a few minutes ago. I feel drained.

Das Leben den Anderen [The Lives of Others] (German, 2006, written and directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, starring Martina Gedeck, Ulrich Mühe, Sebastian Koch, Ulrich Tukur, Thomas Thieme, and others) is not a perfect film, but it is a multi-layered tour de force nevertheless. It subtly conveys the brutish oppressiveness of the East German security system (although I suspect the reality was blacker than it's painted here) and it's emotionally gripping from start to carefully orchestrated finish, taking us through layer after layer of surveillance and betrayal. 

The end of the film seems hopeful, but is it really? Stasi (Ministry for State Security) Hauptmann Wiesler selflessly defies the system to cover up for the "crimes" and personal betrayals of the people he's supposed to be watching; his is an act of love almost. But the final release of the captives that people the frames of The Lives of Others (an entire nation of people) is ultimately effected by Gorbachev and glasnost in the Soviet Union, by what feels like an external accident--the consequence of a personnel change in a land far away. The fall of the Berlin Wall seems as arbitrary as the system that created it, which is a reminder of how frighteningly and pointlessly cruel human beings can be to one another. After some 45 years of oppression, with what did state security provide anyone? Little more than perks for the elite, the kind of perks that no system of government seems able to do away with.

Director Donnersmarck quickly creates a dark mood. In the opening scene, a prisoner brought in for interrogation is made to sit in a stiff chair and told to sit with his hands under his thighs, palms down--tyranny is always petty--and throughout the film, the control exerted by the state is underscored more effectively by these little details than by speeches in the mouths of the main characters. The opening interrogation, we learn, has been taped. In the following scene, Wiesler uses it in the training of new recruits being taught interrogation techniques. The state is patient. It doesn't care about the lives it destroys. It works in shifts. It has all the time in the world. It strikes at love, at loyalty, at everything human in us. Wiesler reminds his students at the Stasi school never to forget to get a scent sample from each interrogation (using a piece of cloth hidden under the seat of the chair the subject sits in). "For the dogs," Wiesler says. Even our own bodies are made to betray us.

Ulrich Mühe is superb throughout. Taut, calculating, ever-observant as Wiesler the faithful Stasi man; fragile, alone, and desperate to feel something--and, ultimately, to do something good--as Wiesler the rebel. The difference in his demeanor is subtle but powerfully evident even in scenes that show him doing almost nothing--just sitting, listening. Or just sitting, interrogating. Even with virtually no expression on his face, we know which Wiesler we're looking at.

I was immediately reminded of Ray Bradbury's Farhrenheit 451. Fireman Guy Montag (played by Oskar Werner in Truffaut's 1966 movie version of the story) finds himself in much the same position as Wiesler. He is the unquestioning enforcer working in the interest of state security, but slowly he finds himself drawn to the people and the ideas he is charged with monitoring and suppressing. The pacing and the crescendo of pursuit at the end of The Lives of Others are reminiscent of The Day of the Jackal (1973, Directed by Fred Zinneman). Emotionally wrenching. Ultimately ambiguous, but hard to forget. Recommended.

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