Thursday, October 07, 2010

Film Notes: The Lives of Others

The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen) is Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's remarkable film set in East Germany. Ulrich Mühe plays a Stasi officer, Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler - a dedicated communist who both enforces state security and teaches Stasi recruits the rudiments of interrogation. He is sent to spy on playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) and his actress-girlfriend Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck), to bug their apartment and report on every aspect of their lives. The initial premise is that these artists are suspected of disloyalty to the state - but the reality soon emerges that a senior party official is pursuing Sieland, and seeking a premise to remove his rival.

The film centres on the mind of Wiesler, as he spends his days and nights watching Dreyman and Sieland. He takes notes as they debate artistic freedom and the state, as they entertain party-loyalists and dissidents, as they sleep, eat, make-love and even the bathroom is bugged. Everything is typed up onto official reports. Yet, what he observes, creates a massive internal dilemma within Weisler. Their life, their passion, their enthusiasm contrasts so vividly with his dead, cold, humanity-devoid work as a party apparatchik that for the first time he allows himself to face his own repressed doubts about the party.

As Weisler makes the critical mistake of allowing himself to see the surveillance subjects as people, it is only a matter of time before he is forced to choose between his instincts and training - and this new-found humanity which is encroaching on his consciousness. Brilliantly, this is done with hardly any dialogue; but simply through letting the camera spy on Weisler, as he sits in his surveillance suite in the attic space above Dreyman's apartment. While Clive Davis' review on the Spectator website derides this aspect of the film as if the writer couldn't be bothered with a dialogue, he misses the point entirely. The point is that Weisler was one of hundreds or thousands of State-drones whose unquestioning loyalty to Honecker was being eroded as they were exposed to new ideas as the 80s progressed. While they could not speak openly, but maintained an image of ruthless loyalty, every exposure to life, art, love or passion brought them a step closer to complete rejection of the dictatorship of the proletariat.

While what Dreyman experiences and discusses, especially the suicide of blacklisted director Albert Jerska (Volkmar Kleinert), fuels Weisler's doubts from one side - the behaviour of the party hierarchy assaults his ideological convictions from the other. As the film develops, the behaviour of Seiland becomes more erratic as she faces the opposite dilemma of whether to take the party-patronage and save her career. Standing as mirror-images either side of the hidden espionage curtain, each faces the life-wrenching dilemma of choosing between treachery and loyalty. I won't spoil the film for you by giving away the critical choices that each makes. Suffice to say that the film grips the viewer as the Stasi raid Dreyman's flat looking for incriminating evidence against him. Finally the film comes to an exquisite ending, in the post-communism era, completing a truly remarkable movie.

Opinions have been deeply divided by The Lives of Others. On one hand it has won rave reviews and awards - but been savaged by some critics such as Clive Davis, who hated its pacing and dialogue. I am unashamedly amongst those who thought that this was a really great film. Convincing, exhilarating, and as painful in its betrayals and lost hopes as it was in its braveries and loyalties. It may not have been accurate in every detail about life in the former GDR, but to miss the point of the film because of such minor details is to by crippled by ones own pedantry. In fact, the sense of oppression, of the fear of speaking-out, of the dead-hand of the state bearing down on every aspect of life; is as well captured as are the sparks of creative life which were beginning to challenge the darkness during the 80s.

I have watched many films which are so predictable, featuring characters so implausible that the final credits are a blessed relief. The Lives of Others, on the other hand impresses itself so deeply on the mind that a deep interest in the fates of Dreyman, Seiland and Weisler grips the viewer. The end of this film left me moved in a way I have not been by a film in a long time. The fall of communism in Eastern Europe was the greatest shift in European history since WWII. This little-drama, set within that massive drama, is a quite brilliant study in loyalty, treachery, bravery, power, corruption, freedom and hope. Unforgettable cinema.

German with English subtitles, one sex-scene gains it a (15) certificate.


Rowena said...

Some friends from the former GDR claim that the most inaccurate part of the film was empty attic space!

That Hideous Man said...

The criticism amongst some is that the brutality of the GDR is undersold - and that the level of fear and paranoia is under-estimated. One writer from the ex-GDR complained about the scene in which a dissident speaks openly to a party official about his disaffection but is not subsequently arrested.

I never went to the GDR, but I did visit The Soviet Union; earlier on in the Gorbachev era. One of the most interesting things I saw was a soldier who stood up in a hotel foyer and made a radical speech against the CPSU. In traditional style, KGB officers immediately appeared from... everywhere. But unsure as to the new realities were frozen - unsure what to do! Did the old realities apply? Then grab him and take him away! Or had glastnost moved far enough to allow the man to speak? One scene of nervous uncertainty summed up a whole empire!

By the time the soldier got to the end of his speech, he was surrounded. The last we saw was him being escorted away!

I thought that the film - in which some people were treated harshly, while others got away with stuff, was trying to express something of the way in which the first cracks were beginning to appear in the old edifice.