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.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

2007 Winner, The Counterfeiters

The Counterfeiters

Director:        Stefan Ruzowitzky
Distributed by:  Filmladen/Universum Film
Released:  March 2007
County:  Austria/Germany

The concept of the “antihero” has always appealed to me.  Today, you can’t turn on the TV without finding a show that has one to root for—think Tony Soprano, Walter White, Don Draper, Tywin Lannister.  And so many great films have had us hoping for the best for the “bad” guys, like Al Pacino in The Godfather and William Holden in Stalag 17.  These protagonists are immoral, live only for themselves, and will generally disregard anyone else’s interests.  You know, like millennials.  (JK, Millennials!).

Javert, Les Miserables
But one thing most good antiheroes have is that one speck of decency that makes them do the right thing every once in a while, maybe even in a spectacular way.  After all, Michael Corleone loved his kids and Sefton helped to catch the real mole in Stalag 17.  In The Counterfeiters, Salomon “Sally” Sorowitsch is that man.  As you can probably guess from the title, Salomon likes to make fake money.  He is the best in the business—his phony currency looks, feels, and even smells like the real thing—no Monopoly guys on his fake bills, that’s for sure.  And Salomon is living large because of it.  But Sally is a Jew, and one ought not be a Jew in 1930’s Germany.  He gets caught by a zealous Nazi Javert-type who has it in for him and is sent off to the nearest local concentration camp.

Bill Holden as Sgt. Sefton, Stalag 17: The Classic Anti-hero
Sally is able to get special treatment because he is a darn good artist—a skill he had to have as a counterfeiter.  Soon he is selling portraits for better food, and is living just a little better than the rest of the inmates.  Some Nazis somewhere hear that Sally is really good at making the fake German marks—they wonder, could he do it with British pounds?  They figure if you could flood Britannia with fake bills, you could wreak all sorts of havoc with the English economy.  Sally is just guy they need to pull it off.

So Sally and some of his chums start cranking out the fake bills for the Nazis.  Sally is a perfectionist and is damn proud of his craft, so it doesn’t take long for him to lose his priorities.  Before long, he is like Alec Guinness in The Bridge on the River Kwai, obsessing over the craft and forgetting who the real enemy is.

Nick Nolte, film version of Mother Night
In his novel Mother Night, Kurt Vonnegut said, “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”  As a counterfeiter extraordinaire, Sally has to figure out who he is:  Is he a counterfeiter who happens to be Jewish, working for the Nazis to get treated better; or is he a Jewish guy who happens to be a counterfeiter, pretending  he is helping the Nazis but really looking for a way to sabotage his enemy?  And will he show that speck of decency that makes anti-heroes so fun to root for?   

Like most Holocaust-related films, this movie is mostly bleak in tone.  But the actor who plays Saloman, Karl Markovics, brings a lightness and a self-assuredness that makes him easy to root for, kind of like Holden in Stalag 17.  As a counterfeiting anti-hero, he is the real deal.

The Title:  Die Fälscher.  Die makes the article "the" plural; this isn't about a threat against some guy named Herr Falscher.

The Culture:  A decent, if unimportant culturally, addition to the Holocaust-related cannon.

Agenda Danger:  Nazis are bad.  But you knew that.

Best Picture that year:   No Country for Old Men

Rating:  As a non-war war movie, this one hits the mark.  The real kind.