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Sunday, March 11, 2007

The Lives of Others

- Georg and Christa-Maria

My sister dropped by today and told me about a movie she saw last night and liked very much ... The Lives of Others. It's German, won the 2007 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, and tells a story set in East Berlin, about spying, music, suicide, and redemption. ... and also about change. I always remember something John Crichton once said about peoples' ability to change ... I think weather changes, and we just keep making the same mistakes. I'm not sure if this movie proves him wrong, but it does make me wonder.

Here below is some of A. O. Scott's review of the movie in the NY Times ...


“The Lives of Others” is haunted by a piece of music called “Sonata for a Good Man,” composed for the film by Gabriel Yared and, at the same time, magically familiar to some of its characters. Like the story that surrounds it — a suspenseful, ethically exacting drama, beautifully realized by the writer and director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck — Mr. Yared’s piece is melancholy, elegant and complicated.

Goodness, as a subject for art, risks falling prey to piety and wishful thinking, but “The Lives of Others,” one of the nominees for this year’s best foreign-language film Oscar, never sacrifices clarity for easy feeling. Posing a stark, difficult question — how does a good man act in circumstances that seem to rule out the very possibility of decent behavior? — it illuminates not only a shadowy period in recent German history, but also the moral no man’s land where base impulses and high principles converge .....

There are two good men in “The Lives of Others,” which starts in Berlin in 1984, and they are presented in counterpoint, never on screen at the same time. One, Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch), is a successful playwright; the other, Capt. Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe), is the Stasi officer who spies on him. Georg, tall and handsome, with a mane of brown hair and a natural grace that stops just short of arrogance, leads something of a charmed life, enjoying a measure of official favor without losing the respect of his fellow artists, who are not all as lucky, or as circumspect, as he is. He shares a roomy apartment in an old building (the kind a capitalist real estate agent would describe as “full of character”) with his girlfriend, Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck), a tall, lovely actress who also stars in his plays.

Wiesler, in contrast, appears at first to be a virtual caricature of the unsmiling Stalinist bureaucrat, with a touch of the old Gestapo thrown in for good measure. Wiry and bald, he lives alone in a drab, brutalist high-rise apartment building, distracting himself with state-run television (which reports on chicken farming and declares that “the 10th Party Conference economic policy is solid”) and a quick visit from a prostitute ......

It is not inaccurate to describe “The Lives of Others” as the story of how both men become disillusioned and hasten each other’s disillusionment. But the paradoxes inherent in this story — which are central to Mr. von Donnersmarck’s brilliant exposition of the Orwellian logic of East German Communism — are worth pausing over. It is not simply that Wiesler, the state-sanctioned, clandestine predator, develops a measure of sympathy for his quarry as he listens in on Georg’s private, unguarded moments (“presumably they have intercourse,” he types in his daily report after eavesdropping on Georg’s birthday party). Surely his training would have inoculated him against this kind of reverse Stockholm syndrome.

Rather, even as Georg is driven toward actions that implicate him, for the first time, in dissident activity, Wiesler becomes convinced of Georg’s essential innocence and takes steps to protect him. The plot, as it acquires the breathless momentum of a thriller, also takes on the outlines of a dark joke. The poet and the secret policeman — both writers, in their differing fashions — may be the only two true patriots in the whole G.D.R.; in other words, the only people who take the Republic’s stated ideals at face value. But since the nation itself functions by means of the wholesale and systematic betrayal of those ideals, the only way Wiesler and Georg can express their loyalty is by committing treason.

Wiesler is at first suspicious of Georg, whose social polish and air of entitlement certainly don’t seem very proletarian. But he soon discovers the real reason for his investigation. Minister Hempf (Thomas Thieme), a government official and former Stasi bigwig, is infatuated with Christa-Maria (who is unable to fend off his grotesque attentions), and he wants some dirt on his rival. Wiesler’s boss, Colonel Grubitz (Ulrich Tukur) — the closest thing Wiesler has to a friend — is happy to advance his own career prospects by going along with the minister’s wishes. Faced with such corruption and cynicism at the highest reaches of the party, what is a good man — or, for that matter, a dutiful Communist — to do? ......

A terrible sadness lies at the heart of “The Lives of Others” — a reckoning of lives and talents wasted by a state with no good reason to exist apart from the maintenance of its own power. But there are comic, even farcical elements as well: a dictatorship that calls itself a democratic republic is inherently ridiculous as well as malignant .....

Early in the film, Minister Hempf condescendingly mocks the faith in humanity Georg expresses in his plays: “People don’t change,” he says. And in some ways Mr. von Donnersmarck endorses the minister’s point of view, even as he turns its cynicism into cause for hope. Georg and Captain Wiesler, though they occasionally waver and worry, remain true to their essential natures, and thus embody the film’s deepest, most challenging paradox: people don’t change, and yet the world does.


- Captain Wiesler spies on Christa-Maria


Blogger PV said...

thanks for the post Crystal. Here in Germany people were very happy about the Oscar for this movie. I have not seen it yet, but I plan to go soon and see it in German. :-)

6:14 AM  
Blogger crystal said...

Hi Paula,

I guess I'll wait until it's rentable and hope I can read the subtitles :-)

11:32 AM  

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