Tuesday, August 30, 2016

2006 Winner, The Lives of Others

Director:  Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck

Distributed by:  Buena Vista International

Released:  March 2006

Country:  Germany

Quick:  Name a movie you have seen in the past five, ten, or even twenty years that had a realistic portrayal of communism.  I bet you can’t.  The only one I could even think of was 1999’s Animal Farm (which I have not seen), based on the George Orwell novel, and I’m not sure you can count talking animals as realistic anyway.  A few novels come to mind--Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, for example.  But when it comes to cinema, you are much more likely to see pro-communist films (like 2004’s The Motorcycle Diaries) or films critical of McCarthyism (or anti-anti-communism) (2015’s Trumbo; 2015's Good Night, and Good Luck) than anything that depicts the ugly reality of Marxism.  And if you read this blog you know that anti-Nazi films are as plentiful as the stars in the sky.

Napoleon, Animal Farm
The Lives of Others stands as a splendid variation to that trend.  Set in East Germany about a half decade before the Berlin Wall fell, The Lives of Others focuses on the work of a Stasi officer, Gerd Wiesler.  The Stasi was essentially East Germany’s version of the KGB, the secret police who kept the government informed of any non-conformity.  And Gerd is as good as it gets at what he does.  The movie opens with him teaching a class to some Stasi-wannabes on how to do an interrogation, and we can tell this guy takes his job seriously.  Gerd plays a recording to the class of himself doing an “interview,” and the interviewee begs for some sleep.  In the classroom, one wisenheimer asks, “Why not let him sleep?  It’s inhumane.”  Gerd answers the question politely, but puts a little X next to that guy’s name on the class chart.  We get the feeling it isn’t to give him bonus points for class participation.

You just made the list, buddy.
In pre-Glasnost East Germany, one had better watch what one says, and does, and especially writes.  Playwright Georg Dreyman has been a pretty good party guy, but somebody has it in for him, so Gerd is assigned to watch him.  A job like this seems super-Stasi to him, so Gerd is more than willing to see if Georg is as squeaky-clean a communist as he pretends to be.  This is going to require the full-on Big Brother treatment—microphones all over Georg’s apartment.  Georg is ready to spend hours listening to Georg type his plays, sleep, and get it on with his actress girlfriend Christa-Maria (in fact, one reason Georg is being targeted is to possibly get him out of the way so some big shot can slide in and scoop up Christa-Maria).  But Georg, of course, is not 100% on board with the communists these days and writes an article, published anonymously, that the government would find offensive.  It’s up to Gerd to find proof that Georg wrote it.

To go further with this review would be to spoil it somewhat, and this is one you should see.  But I will say that the movie’s climax takes place shortly before Gorbachev becomes leader of the Soviet Union, so we the viewers know communism’s days in East Germany are numbered.  This adds to the drama--will Georg survive under the communist heel until its reign is over?
Stasi emblem: They seem like fun people!
This movie is filled with slow-burning suspense that draws us in and then delivers.  The main characters are subtly drawn, and I especially enjoyed the minimalist acting of Ulrich Mühe (who died within a year of the release of this film), who plays Gerd.  Mühe plays Gerd like a real person—seemingly robotic in his ideological inflexibility on the surface, but whether his humanity will allow itself to surface is what is in question.  The Lives of Others gives us a peek into what it must have been like to live behind the Iron Curtain, but it also tells a great story.

The Title:  Das Leben der Anderen.  Like in Orwell's 1984, someone is always watching.

The Culture:  2014’s Ida gave us a peek into Poland toward the beginning of communism after World War II; this films shows that life wasn’t better toward the end of communism in East Germany.

Agenda Danger:  William F. Buckley, father of the modern conservative movement, remarked after watching the film, “I think that is the best movie I ever saw.”  So sure, you could say there is an agenda, but not an untruthful one.

Best Picture that year:  The Departed

Rating:  I don’t know if this was the best movie I ever saw (that would be The Godfather, in case you wanted to know), but it is one of the best foreign ones I’ve ever seen.

1 comment:

  1. It is also one of the best foreign films I have ever seen, too. Muhe's performance is outstanding and really carries the story.