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The Lives of Others — three more takes

The Lives of Others — three more takes May 18, 2007


Three more interesting reviews or commentaries on The Lives of Others came through my Google Reader account today.

First, Timothy Garton Ash of The New York Review of Books:

Watching the film for the first time, I was powerfully affected. Yet I was also moved to object, from my own experience: “No! It was not really like that. This is all too highly colored, romantic, even melodramatic; in reality, it was all much grayer, more tawdry and banal.” The playwright, for example, in his smart brown corduroy suit and open-necked shirt, dresses, walks, and talks like a West German intellectual from Schwabing, a chic quarter of Munich, not an East German. Several details are also wrong. On everyday duty, Stasi officers would not have worn those smart dress uniforms, with polished knee-length leather boots, leather belts, and cavalry-style trousers. By contrast, the cadets in the Stasi university are shown in ordinary, student-type civilian clothes; they would have been in uniform. A Stasi surveillance team would have been most unlikely to install itself in the attic of the same building—a sure give-away to the residents, not all of whom could have been reliably silenced by the kind of chilling warning that Wiesler delivers to the playwright’s immediate neighbor across the stairwell: “One word to anyone and your Masha immediately loses her place to study medicine at university. Understood?” . . .

But these objections are in an important sense beside the point. The point is that this is a movie. It uses the syntax and conventions of Hollywood to convey to the widest possible audience some part of the truth about life under the Stasi, and the larger truths that experience revealed about human nature. It mixes historical fact (several of the Stasi locations are real and most of the terminology and tradecraft is accurate) with the ingredients of a fast-paced thriller and love story. . . .

During a subsequent question-and-answer session in an Oxford cinema the director mentioned, in separate answers, two films that he admired: Claude Lanzmann’s harrowing Holocaust documentary, Shoah, and Anthony Minghella’s version of The Talented Mr. Ripley—a thriller involving murder and stolen identity—which he singled out because “it doesn’t bore me, and for that I’m very grateful.” In The Lives of Others, Shoah meets The Talented Mr. Ripley. Von Donnersmarck does care about the historical facts, but he’s even more concerned not to bore us. And for that we are grateful. . . .

The small inaccuracies and implausibilities are, on balance, justifiable artistic license, allowing a deeper truth to be conveyed. It does, however, lose something important: the sense of what Hannah Arendt famously called the banality of evil— and nowhere was evil more banal than in the net-curtained, plastic-wood cabins and caravans of the German Democratic Republic. Yet that is extraordinarily difficult to recreate, certainly for a wider audience, precisely because it was so banal, so unremittingly, mind-numbingly boring. (Or could a great screenwriter and director create a nonboring film about boredom? I lay down the challenge here.) . . .

Second, Anna Fulder of Sight & Sound, via The ScreenGrab:

S&S;‘s Funder is equally admiring, from a distance, but much harder on the film’s inaccuracies, and on the question of whether a Wiesler could really exist. In her view, no, because the Stasi’s checks and balances, its internal surveillance, and its compartmentalization would not have put a real Wiesler into the situation in which the film version finds himself. Funder is also very good at pointing out certain different historical inaccuracies, and on the modern role of ex-Stasi members in contemporary society, where far from being humble lowly workers they are private sector surveillance experts and public protestors against their portrayal in society, where they are casually vicious about torturing (again) their former victims.

And finally, the incomparable Slavoj Zizek, at In These Times, who contrasts this film with Good Bye Lenin! (2003) — and warning, there be major, major spoilers here:

Like so many other films depicting the harshness of Communist regimes, The Lives of Others misses their true horror. How so? First, what sets the film’s plot in motion is the corrupt minister of culture, who wants to get rid of the top German Democratic Republic (GDR) playwright, Georg Dreyman, so he can pursue unimpeded an affair with Dreyman’s partner, the actress Christa-Maria. In this way, the horror that was inscribed into the very structure of the East German system is relegated to a mere personal whim. What’s lost is that the system would be no less terrifying without the minister’s personal corruption, even if it were run by only dedicated and “honest” bureaucrats. . . .

Finally, there is a weird twist to the story that blatantly contradicts historical fact. In all known cases of a married couple where a spouse betrayed a partner, it was always a man who became an informant—in Lives, it is the woman, Christa-Maria, who breaks down and betrays her husband.

Isn’t the reason for this weird distortion the film’s secret homosexual undercurrent? The film’s hero, Gerd Wiesler, a Stasi agent whose duty is to plant the microphones and listen to everything the couple does, becomes attracted to Dreyman. It is this affection that gradually leads him to help Dreyman. After die Wende—the “turning point” when the Wall came down—Dreyman discovers what went on by gaining access to his files. He returns Wiesler’s love interest, secretly following Wiesler who now works as a modest postman. The situation is thus effectively reversed: The observed victim is now the observer. In the film’s last scene, Wiesler goes to a bookstore (the legendary Karl-Marx-Buchhandlung on the Stalin Alee, of course), buys the writer’s new novel, The Sonata for an Honest Man, and discovers it is dedicated to him (designated by his secret Stasi code). Thus, to indulge in a somewhat cruel irony, the finale of Lives recalls the famous ending of Casablanca: With the “beginning of a beautiful friendship” between Dreyman and Wiesler, now that the intruding obstacle of a woman is conveniently out of the way—a true Christ-like gesture of sacrifice on her part. (No wonder her name is Christa-Maria!)

In contrast to this idyll, the very superficial appearance of light-hearted nostalgic comedy in Good Bye Lenin! is a screen that covers a much harsher underlying reality (signalled at the film’s opening by the brutal intrusion of the Stasi into the family home after the husband escapes to the West). The lesson is thus much more desperate than the one of Lives: No heroic resistance to the GDR regime could be sustained. The only way to survive was to escape into madness, to disconnect from reality. . . .

To put it quite brutally, while Ostalgie is widely practiced in today’s Germany without causing ethical problems, one (for the time being, at least) cannot imagine publicly practicing a Nazi nostalgia: “Good Bye Hitler” instead of “Good Bye Lenin.” Doesn’t this bear witness to the fact that we are still aware of the emancipatory potential in Communism, which, distorted and thwarted as it was, was thoroughly missing in Fascism? . . .

This, of course, in no way implies that Good Bye Lenin! is without faults. The weak point of the film is that (like Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful) it sustains the ethics of protecting one’s illusions: It manipulates the threat of a new heart attack as the means to blackmail us into accepting the need to protect one’s fantasy as the highest ethical duty. Isn’t the film then unexpectedly endorsing Leo Strauss’ thesis on the need for a “noble lie”? So is it really that the emancipatory potential of Communism is only a “noble lie” to be staged and sustained for the naive believers, a lie which effectively only masks the ruthless violence of the Communist rule? . . .

Fascinating thoughts all. Though Zizek may have one of his facts wrong, namely his claim that no wife ever informed on her husband. As it happens, Ulrich Muhe, the actor who plays the Stasi agent in The Lives of Others, says his own wife informed on him — though his claim is admittedly somewhat controversial.

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