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Lives of Others

Perhaps because of its Oscar nomination the German film The Lives of Others it is finally getting reviews in the the U.S. media. I've seen the movie twice, and have some thoughts regarding the film and the reviews. I'll keep the spoilers to a minimum.


Three reviews are worth mentioning: A.O. Scott's at the NY Times Stephanie Zacharek's at Salon, and Noel Murrays for the The Onion A.V. Club.

The most comprehensive and nuanced of the three is Scott's so that if you read one, read that one. I'm not a rabid fan of Scott's reviews; the cinephile in me prefers Manohla Dargis, but Scott does bring the perspective of a more-or-less normal, if at least educated, viewer to the mix. At times Zacharek is on, at others off, but the reason is often the same: an extreme desire to identify with elements of the movie, and regardless of the quality of the film. If she cannot identify—usually with the characters but often with objects, such as her dislike of the Batmobile in the most recent Batman movie—she tends to dislike the movie and the rest of the review is rubbish. Because the movie in question is to a great extent about feelings, matters of identification, and, as Zacharek notices, about what it means to be human, the review works. Murray's review is insightful but off, and the reasons why I'll try to get to, but I am certain that his suggestions would produce, in this case at least, a much worse movie.

Self & Reflection

I saw “Das Leben der Anderen” in Berlin with Corina, Martin, and Laura. It was a packed theater, the Alexanderplatz CineMaxx, and it had a mostly East Berlin audience. This was toward the end of the film's run, and yet nearly every seat was taken. In Germany it is traditional that seats are assigned at movie theaters, although in many larger cinemas you can take what you want, since the movie is unlikely to be full, unless we're talking about an arthouse cinema. And yet here were were, forced into our assigned seats because even this late in the run the movie was packed. At the end it was clear that the audience loved the movie.

The English title “The Lives of Others” changes the German just a bit, substituting a plural for what is, at least grammatically, a singular in the German—“The Life of (the) Others.” This is an unimportant alteration.

What the movie offers is a collection of excellent performances that never insult the intelligence of the audience. There is a type of naive realism to the acting and the directing, and it is this latter part to which Murray objects:

Directors with a recognizable style, like Steven Spielberg, Brian De Palma, and Oliver Stone, frequently get scolded for marking serious movie material with their gauche personal stamps. But at least those filmmakers have personalities, and the boldness to impose them. Writer-director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck gives his debut feature, The Lives Of Others, no particular style, and the absence of visual risk-taking renders an exciting premise ponderous and stolid.

There is little directorial stamp here, but it allows the performances to shine. The director steps to the background, and instead the period detail and the subtle emotional content of the characters come through. There are no zooming closeups or extreme camera angles. Cuts are neither Wellesian or Kubrickian long nor MTV short.

There is, however, a narrative style and structure that shine through. There are two personal stories here that become intertwined, a bit knotted perhaps, and then they switch positions, the stories of Dreyman the playwright and of Wiesler the Stasi (Staatssicherheitsdient, the secret police). The parallelism is obvious in many regards: Dreyman has sex with his girlfriend and Wiesler goes home to a hired prostitute. Dreyman lives in an Altbau with a high ceiling; Wiesler lives in a socialist-era apartment block. The former plays soccer with the kids in the street; the latter is followed into his elevator by a kid with a ball.

While Dreyman lives in his apartment, upstairs in the attic space Wiesler has a chalk floorplan of the apartment below through which he can stroll. But then matters become complicated. That chalk outline is not just a floorplan; it is much like a stage, and the stage has marks for blocking. Instead of just being the observer, as he is at the theater at the beginning of the film, Wiesler becomes a director, analogous to Dreyman as playwright, someone who creates and controls action.

From the chalk blocking he turns to direct intervention of several kinds, moving beyond the invasion of spying and listening equipment installed in the apartment, to notifying Dreyman of Sieland's indiscretions, and to doctoring transcripts and breaking into the apartment to steal a book, which he then takes home and reads in his own apartment. His most direct intervention comes toward the end and involves the typewriter, and in that scene he mirrors Dreyman, who, likewise, hid in the entrance when someone else entered the building.

One might say that the catalyst is not in the characters but in the fictitious “Sonata of the Good Person,” a gift from Dreyman's blacklisted director friend to the former at a birthday party, which, as music, then effects Wiesler and goes hand-in-hand, after the director's death, with Dreyman anonymously publishing in the west an article about GDR suicides. Both Dreyman and Wiesler are the only pure albeit not innocent main characters, which is to say, they remain to a certain extent non-corrupt and sincerely convinced socialists, contrasted with the Minister and Wiesler's one-time friend and colleague, Anton Grubitz. As reviews point out, their struggle is that in a corrupt system the only way to remain true to the ideals of the system is to become a traitor; in contrast we see the sickeningly grotesque Minister Bruno Hempf exploit the system for his own carnal pleasures and vices, Grubitz believe in its practice if not ideals for the sake of his own career, and Sieland as a puppet of her own weaknesses willing to give in to save herself. Mirroring a classic tragedy she must be sacrificed, and despite her weaknesses, which can bring harm to others, she remains a conflicted and sympathetic figure, not so with Grubitz and Hempf, for whom we feel nothing but disgust. They are the banality of evil about which we hear and read so much when studying fascism, demonstrating that such banal evil can exist in any system.

If I dismiss Murray's review for a minute, most of the other skeptical, critical, or negative comments I've heard about the movie have come from those who fear that it makes the Stasi figure (Wiesler) sympathetic. This approach is tied to what I hate most about contemporary interpretation, a tendency to treat most everything as an allegory and generalize. Because Wiesler is a Stasi agent who is treated at points sympathetically thus The Stasi is being treated as okay. Because Bruno Ganz portrayed Hitler as more than caricature in “Der Untergang” thus Hitler was humanized and his crimes minimized; we're saying that Hitler wasn't so bad.

This does not follow from the works in question at all.

It is merely a symptom of a critical malaise, of a top-down approach to interpretation, to being beholden, often subconsciously, to an implied theory that, because it is seemingly transparent, is not an aid to interpretation or descriptive, but normative. A paradigm.

I'll write more about allegory at another date.

My view on allegory is more nuanced than that, but let us just consider the matter of representation of pseudo-historical subjects in movies, which is to say, fictionalized accounts in period pieces and our ethical obligations, or at least the matter of responsibility.

When it comes to “historical” movies in general I am a bit torn and have not—categorically—made up my mind. I'm not sure that such a categorical judgment, however, is warranted. Does it matter that Ridley Scott's “Gladiator” displaces its actual historical figures. Does it matter with Shakespeare's “Julius Caesar?” There certainly are those who believe that Shakespeare's drama represents an accurate treatment of history, even though there is no good reason for them to do so, but if it is their only exposure to the material, it's understandable if perhaps deplorable. Should we chastise the long-dead Shakespeare or contemplate the status of history and the teaching thereof in our schools?

The Elizabethan age itself is closer to us than Rome, and I have no problem with the excellent “Elizabeth” of years past, “Shakespeare in Love” from the same year, or even Friedrich (von) Schiller's “Maria Stuart,” which compresses Elizabeth's life into a short span, this time at the end of her reign and with the last Maria in contrast to “Elizabeth,” which focuses on the first years and the earlier Marias. With “Shakespeare in Love” at least we have a work that wears its fictionality on its sleeve; the script by Stoppard is too witty and the parallels to and outright stealing from Shakespeare's own plays so obvious that mistaking the movie for a historical record would require a special kind of stupidity.

The matter is not, I feel, so cut-and-dry with recent history, and one movie with which I have particular issues is the long-forgotten “Behind Enemy Lines,” the 2001 Owen Wilson vehicle that failed to free him from starring in comedies, where his talents are best spent. This movie deals with what at the time was not even history but current events (our involvement in the Balkans) and likewise explicitly claimed to answer the question (see: cafeteria scene early in the movie) as to why we (the U.S.) were there (Balkans, Serbia, Kosovo, Bosnia) in the first place. This was a situation where few Americans had any knowledge outside of CNN sound- and video-clips and the movie provided an answer, and a terribly irresponsible and non-nuanced one at that. When the equally—no, even more!—terrible “Pearl Harbor” was released I likewise despised the movie for its cinematic failings, but when it came to its incorrect (re)presenation of history, I was not bothered.

Pearl Harbor and WWII are events for which we have master- or grand-narratives, and movies or novels about them do not structure our views; rather, the good works of fiction about these periods must necessarily deviate from the received wisdom and show us something we did not already know. When it came to Bosnia most Americans were in a situation of knowing nothing at all; in a similar vein “Blackhawk Down” is a historically irresponsible travesty, a work of regime-enforcing propaganda, but it has guilty-pleasure merit as a superbly executed travesty at least.

“The Lives of Others” is perhaps problematic for American audiences who might see it and think that the Stasi was not that bad—a discussion in Chicago with colleagues in November went exactly this direction with the criticism. The movie was not discussed on aesthetic but rather ethical terms. But can or should a movie by and primarily for Germans take into account potential misunderstanding(s) by an uneducated American public? I feel that is too much to ask. But on top of that I do not feel that the portrayals in the movie amount to misinterpretations, for I reject the allegorical interpretations that see Wiesler as the Stasi; I do not see the movie as an act of historical revisionism gone awry.

What is worth noting, however, is a peculiar trend in German movies dealing with both the Nazi and Cold War periods that was broken in 2006.

In short: until “Das Leben der Anderen” and Dani Levy's negatively received “Mein Führer” German-made WWII/Nazi movies were serious dramas and East German (or post-East German) movies were comedies. This theory is weakened by the existence of Margarethe von Trotta's 1995 film “Das Versprechen,” but I see that movie as more of a Cold War-era movie and one that deals not with the later years of the GDR/DDR or Germany after the Wall but rather with the the first years of the Wall. It's less about life in the GDR/DDR than it is about getting out.

But when we then consider the post-DDR movies out there that combine the DDR with the years after, we have “Go Trabi Go” and its sequel, “Sonnenallee,” “Good Bye Lenin!” etc. When it comes to WWII we have serious Hitler movies (“Der Untergang”), serious movies about resistance (“Sophie Scholl”), and mostly somber reflections about exile (“Nirgendwo in Afrika”). 2006, however, brought the nuanced drama “Das Leben der Anderen” to the screen and saw the filming of “Mein Führer,” the first German Hitler comedy (although it's worth noting that in print/comics Adolf had already been parodied—see Achim Greser's Der Führer privat).

Assume Butchery

For the sake of both cynicism and amusement let us assume that Hollywood decides to remake “The Lives of Others” as an American movie. We can say that in reality this will not occur, but it is both amusing to consider how it might be done and an exercise in cynical reflection to note that Americans hate subtitled films and that quite a few foreign movies have been remade in recent years: “Vanilla Sky” (“Abre los Ojos”) and various Japanese horror movies (“The Ring” and “The Grudge”) come to mind.

Were Hollywood to remake this film, I would recommend Antonio Banderas in the Dreyman role and Kirstie Allie as his actress girlfriend, Christa-Maria Sieland, not because either actor is necessarily suited to the role, but because they share certain physical characteristics with the German actors. Wiesler is more difficult, but were he younger Ben Kinsley would almost work, and his dialect-spouting assistant Udo in the attic could be played by Jack Black. the typewriter expert role will resurrect the career from someone from “Revenge of the Nerds.” Herbert Knaup could reprise his role as the western journalist/editor because he is already known to American audiences through his roles in “Lola Rennt” and the truly horrendous “Anatomie II.”

Returning briefly to Murray's review, I do not want to see what this would be like in the hands of Spielberg, De Palma, or another director with a strong stamp, a noticeable style. For this material, a story about people not in any authoritarian state but a particular one at a specific time and tied to specific historical events (the fall of the Wall), it needs to be about characters as individuals with stories to tell, not a director's interpretation of history. Indeed, what anyone can tell you is that the most spielbergian moments of “Shindler's List” were also the weakest, the most irresponsible, and the least artistic.

—February 10 2007