Saturday, June 02, 2007

The Lives of Others (2006)

The Lives of Others (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, 2006)
German Title: Das Leben der Anderen

The critics of Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's very successful first film The Lives of Others attack it for its historical inaccuracy or the sparseness of truthfulness behind the facts that envelope the entire film. This surprise Oscar winner (beating out Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth (2006)) tells the story of a member of East Germany's Secret Police (the feared Stasi) who becomes tasked to spy on a poet who is suspected of adhering to Western ideals. Glaring for most purist historians is how von Donnersmarck marks the film with humanist pathos for the privacy-interfering Stasi, to the point of plotting out a steady path to redemption.

In interviews, Von Donnersmarck defends his films' historical accuracy or possibility by citing out several examples of Stasi who reneged on their sleazy governmental duties. At times, I question the wisdom in defending his film through factual chronicles. Is the film's downfall its inability to grasp the realities of our world's past? Is Von Donnersmarck's intention to cleanse these mini-atrocities of Communist Germany by providing a shining example of the possibility for righteousness in a society dictated by bureaucratic crab mentality? I disagree. Above all, I thought The Lives of Others is a humanist masterpiece. It is a film wherein intrinsic goodness triumphs over the fragility of the human soul. I cannot find fault in that; not in these trying times wherein a film's quality is measured by its negativity and how accurately it portrays humanity's moral downfall.

The heart of the film is certainly Ulrich Mühe's portrayal of Captain Gerd Wiesler, the Stasi agent who we initially see as stoic and sure in his duties, unwavering in the inhumanity of his interrogation techniques, morally unaffected in imparting his methods' efficiencies to young students. Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch), a successful poet, has become the target of a high-ranking official who fancies Dreyman's beautiful girlfriend and muse, stage actress Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck). Wiesler's surveillance expertise is recruited to find anything incriminating about Dreyman.

Wiesler's canvass is Dreyman's pad --- a constant meeting place for anti-Communist artists, and a love nest for Dreyman and Sieland. Wiesler's studio is the pad's darkened attic --- a pathetic setting characterized by his instruments for his trade (a bevy of surveillance equipment which is wired to each and every spot in Dreyman's pad), and at times a companion for a few minutes, his night shift replacement. Wiesler's nights aren't any different from his solitary stay above Dreyman's pad. He goes home, makes dinner for himself, at times, hires a government-sponsored prostitute who serves him properly given that he pays right and schedules an appointment. It's a routine he has learned to live with, but in a sudden burst of humanity, opts to reject; against the promises of a lucrative career within the mechanical bureaucracy.

The film's success hinges on the plausibility of Wiesler's turnabout. I thought the turnabout was satisfyingly gradual --- visually presented and paced well enough to evoke judicious amounts of pathos and vulnerability for the subject character. Von Donnersmarck aptly and gorgeously creates an atmosphere of deadened loneliness and futility against the palpable warmth of true affections and the even more engaging and rousing prospect of rebellion and freedom. It is that interconnection of Wiesler's drab and lifeless world with the one Dreyman is living in that forces Wiesler to re-think --- is his life's worth measured by what he has been tasked to do by his bureaucratic masters, or is there something more? That interconnection, although one way as it is effected through less than desirous means of discreetly invading on other people's businesses, becomes that spark that will consume him enough to change him.

The film ends rather beautifully, without the usual grandeur or narrative excesses of contemporary cinema. Wiesler, years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, chances upon the newly-released book by his former surveillance subject. He opens the book and sees a lovely surprise --- finally, he is complete and has been acknowledged. He is no longer that lonely man quietly peering and listening in a darkened attic; he has become a part of the life of another.


Anonymous said...

History aside, what I couldn't grasp, in the narrative sense, was how the Stasi agent could have gone through years and years of his job without so much as an inkling that he may be, to put it lightly, ruining people's lives; and then, all of a sudden and all at once, to come to that (surprise?) realization with Dreyman.

I did like how Donnersmarck used colours, though: the contrast between Dreyman's home (so important, as you say) with its warmth and reds and browns, and the agent's drab greys, illustrated best by his tight-fitting grey coat.

Oggs Cruz said...

Thanks pacze moj,

At first, I also thought that it was too convenient for the Captain to suddenly become "good" if he's been doing the exact same thing for years.

However, I also conceded to the idea that perhaps, this is the first time for the Captain to be spying on an artist, one who is initially supportive of the Communist regime and suddenly takes a grasp on his life. It's probably his first time to get so "into" the life of others, that the same transformation happens also with him. Most probably, his former missions were of people already so into Western culture, that all he has to do is actually catch them in the act. With Dreyman, on the other hand, he has to experience the turn-around, the sweet love-making, the pains and repressions that surrounds their artistry, the whole gamut of inconsistencies his party forwards. There's always a possibility for metanoia if one is bombarded with that kind of information.

Anonymous said...

...which would also make the film very much about the power of art to make people "see".

I like that.

Oggs Cruz said...

I like that a lot too...

You got a nice nice blog, by the way.

Anonymous said...

I just saw the movie tonight and it seemed to me the turning point for the captain was when he was ordered not to mention that Christa was dropped off by the Culture Minister. Suddenly, he is confronted by the realization that the elite get to play by different rules and, being a shrewd observer of people, figures out that he is being used just so the Minister can have his way with Christa. The movie also rang true for me because I actually read four volumes of Stasi files while researching my book "Rock 'n'Roll Radical: The Life and Mysterious Death of Dean Reed." The Stasi used many of the same tricks and methods in its 14-year surveillance of American singer and actor Dean Reed, which, as in this movie, ends in an artist's suicide.

Oggs Cruz said...

Thanks so much Chuck,

I'd love to read your book, if it's ever available online. The film did arouse my curiosity on the Stasi and how much they invaded on the lives of people.