Monday, March 18, 2019

The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen)

Director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck

THE LIVES OF OTHERS (Das Leben der Anderen)                       A                    
Germany  (137 mi)  2006 d:  Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck

A brilliantly realized depiction of the East German Stasi secret police, set in the mid 1980’s when they were in full swing, casting their net of surveillance over the entire nation, sadistically turning neighbor against neighbor, all under the thumb of an information hungry police state, where all choices were impossible, where for an entire nation there was no option, as failure to cooperate with the authorities usually meant dire consequences.  This is a revival of Kieslowski’s behind the iron curtain cinema of moral anxiety, and in many ways parallels his 1988 film, A SHORT FILM ABOUT LOVE (1988), as in this case, instead of an ordinary citizen spying on his attractive neighbor, it is one of the highest Stasi agents bugging the home apartment of one of the country’s leading playwrights, a man who flaunts western attire, interests, books and other periodicals, also having a demure leading actress as his girlfriend, so the police can only conclude he’s up to no good.  In both cases, the voyeur becomes intoxicated with the subject, so much so that they act in a way that might otherwise be considered insane, as it’s beyond logic or reason, and might even be considered an act of love. 

Ulrich Mühe, a man who was in real life married to a Stasi informer, who understands all too well what it feels like to live under constant police surveillance, plays Captain Gerd Wiesler, an Alec Guinness look-alike from DR. ZHIVAGO (1965), an unassuming man of quiet intelligence, a Party advocate who rarely speaks, but continually jots down what he sees in a small pocket notebook, the eyes and ears of the State.  At each level above him are more despicable men, men enthralled with and corrupted by their own power, men who hold themselves above the laws of the nation, who would rather intimidate the entire population into blind obedience.  Their systematic infiltration of the population is legendary, their interrogations ruthless, operating with 100,000 full-time employees, 200,000 informers, forcing each citizen to capitulate to the police one interrogation at a time.  In the opening sequence, Wiesler demonstrates how he wears down his subjects, offering them no sleep, coldly and calculatingly waiting them out until their resistance is broken, then threatening their family or loved ones with arrest until they confess.  Sebastian Koch is the East German playwright Georg Dreyman, “the only non-subversive playwright we have,” while Martina Gedeck is exquisite in the role of his girl friend, the nation’s leading actress, Christa-Maria Sieland, “the loveliest pearl of the G.D.R,” who unfortunately has an addiction to popping illegal pills.  The head of the Stasi is forcing Christa to submit to weekly sessions of sex in exchange for allowing her to work, an artistic practice that is completely controlled by the State.  It is their apartment that Wiesler bugs, sitting and listening and typing his reports on everything he hears.

Dreyman is connected to a community of other artists, many of whom have already defected to the West, which is the government’s greatest fear, which is why they keep such close tabs on them.  Many have already been interrogated and imprisoned, leaving them with a bitter taste in their mouths, while others have been blacklisted and out of work for as long as a decade.  The Stasi’s method is to imprison them indefinitely, but long enough so that they voluntarily never again contribute anything else in their chosen field.  What Wiesler discovers, however, is that these artists are hiding nothing, exhibiting a rare openness in a society that thrives on secrets and covering up, discovering instead that it is his own superiors who have the suspect motives, which puts him in the same impossible position as the people he is spying on.  This turns into a series of calculated risks, where each side realizes they’re being watched, but they have to decide how to act.  When a blacklisted director who hasn’t worked in ten years finally hangs himself, Dreyman and Wiesler simultaneously commit to more drastic actions, beautifully rendered in a musical sequence where Dreyman plays a piece of piano music given to him by the director called “Sonata for a Good Man,” a piece written by the film’s musical composer, Gabriel Yared, which has a significant impact on Wiesler, who begins to identify with “the lives of others,” omitting significant details in his reports, as it’s hard for him to believe his government didn’t drive that man to the breaking point.  Dreyman at one point is heard asking how anyone who has listened to this music, really listened to it, could ever think of it as anything bad.  On several occasions Wiesler nearly blows his cover, one is a beautifully designed sequence in a bar which is one of the turning points in the film, as without ever coming out and actually saying so, he subtly persuades Christa to re-examine her weekly sessions with the Stasi superior, where she inquires into his motives, as he seems to know so much about her, questioning if he is a “good man?” 

Beautifully written, mixing meticulous detail with intelligence and humor, where the tone and pacing of the film are perfectly matched, where the music does not overreach, yet is genuinely in synch with the mood of the film, where the ensemble cast is flawless, and where the urgency of the story starts to feel overwhelmingly personal after awhile.  There’s another scene nearer the end where Christa is arrested and subject to interrogation, a scene of indescribable conflict and tension, where she identifies her interrogator as a friend from an earlier moment in the film, yet cannot reveal anything, where the interrogator himself is under observation, so both are placed in an impossible dilemma.  This poignantly describes living under the thumb of relentless totalitarian psychological pressure, eloquently described in his book as The Captive Mind by Polish Nobel prize laureate Czeslaw Milosz, and the film never for a minute wavers in this regard, filled with small moments that are as revealing as the larger ones, which include a not so incidental reference to Communist Party Premiere Gorbachev, a man who simply walked away from a position of unlimited power, and a man who incidentally changed the entire culture of living under an authoritarian police state, and in doing so, changed the course of possibilities for others.  It’s a powerful work for a first time filmmaker who also wrote the film, whose recollections include his mother being searched by the secret police as a young boy, which may help explain the dramatic impact this film reaches by the end, stunningly understated, yet precisely to the point.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Never Look Away (Werk ohne Autor)

Director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck

NEVER LOOK AWAY (Werk ohne Autor)             B                    
Germany  Italy  (188 mi)  2018  d: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck

From the director of The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen) (2006), the director’s first feature film which won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film and became the most successful German-language film in history, yet it was denied a competition spot at the Berlin Film Festival and was loved everywhere else except in Germany, which took offense to the autocratic portrayal of the East German Stasi secret police that spied on its own citizens with ruthless efficiency, yet suddenly displayed a change of heart.  This is another film that curiously explores the sweeping historical ramifications of the Nazi era in German history, creating an epic, three-hour film where art intersects with life, etched with the melodramatic sweep of a Spielberg film, though displaying a bit more cleverness, actually utilizing the biographical story of German artist Gerhard Richter without attributing his name, though he is thanked in the end credits.  Even the paintings are done by Andreas Schön, Richter’s former assistant, offering a touch of authenticity.  It’s a strange way to tell someone’s story, without acknowledging that person as the inspirational source of the story, and though the film is fictional, it has real-life historical roots.  The director met with the artist prior to writing the film and conducted a series of interviews with him, so it may have initially had his blessing, but Richter, who is an extraordinarily private individual, has all but disowned the film, refusing to allow his name or any of his paintings to be used and would not even allow himself to view the film, so whatever initial interest he might have expressed quickly soured, unhappily describing it “an abuse.”  Still, despite his reservations, Donnersmarck has filmed what amounts to a shockingly accurate recreation of Richter’s family life and personal experiences, where his life comes to personify what most Germans experienced in the three decades from the transition from the Nazi era of the late 1930’s to the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961.  The film attempts to turn the profound trauma of a nation into a renewed source of energy and inspiration, with art serving as a guiding light, an emblem of resilience, and a sign of better things to come, discovering a new “anonymous” art fusing historical reality with a blurred memory, creating artworks with no author, which explains the German title of the film.  The American title makes less sense, but extends an early developing theme, repeating a line spoken by one of the characters, feeling more like a sound bite. 

The captivating musical score by Max Richter effectively contributes to a larger-than-life creation of stellar emotional moments, while the luminous cinematography by Caleb Deschanel is especially noteworthy, nominated for an Academy Award for the fifth time, but the first in fourteen years.  There’s an opening 45-minute prelude that is easily the best thing in the film, both in terms of originality and intensity, as nothing that comes afterwards is remotely comparable, turning into a romanticized melodrama along the lines of DR. ZHIVAGO (1965), but with characters that are not as fully developed, so one needs to pay particular attention to the opening segments, where like Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), a lead character is killed off relatively early in the film, with reverberations echoing throughout the rest of the film that continue to have a profound effect on literally everything that happens.  That’s a stunning way to open a film, which starts out innocently enough with a young girl spending the day with her nephew, as a teenaged Elisabeth (Saskia Rosendahl) is bringing her young 6-year old nephew Kurt (already a budding artist) on a museum tour in Dresden in the late 30’s, but already the Nazi’s are staging an exhibition only to condemn and ridicule the works on display, with a mocking tour guide describing the modern, abstract art of Paul Klee, Max Ernst, Wassily Kandinsky and others as “degenerate art,” depicted as worthless junk that belongs in a junk pile, that could be created by children while being sold for astonishing sums, suggesting these were the driving forces of moral corruption and an evil plot against the noble German heritage, where one room entirely featuring abstract paintings was labelled “the insanity room.”  These artists were driven out of the country, seeking refuge elsewhere, yet the exhibitions were extremely popular, drawing larger than usual crowds, some out of sheer curiosity, viewing it as a scandal, but also taking advantage of seeing this kind of art before it was destroyed by the Third Reich.  What’s most intriguing, the film seems to suggest, is that art will outlive all political regimes.  Yet it’s clear Elisabeth is not easily fooled by this damning rhetoric, wanting to expose Kurt to as wide a range of art as possible, reminding him that “everything that is true is beautiful,” condemning censorship of all forms, urging him to “never look away.”  There’s a chilling scene with Elisabeth among the other all-female Hitler youth, given the opportunity to hand flowers directly into the hands of the Führer as he pays them a visit, where she is viewed like a rock star afterwards as the other girls look on in awe.     

But there’s also a meeting in October 1939 of Gestapo medical physicians discussing the implementation of a new plan of Nazi eugenics, weeding out the sick and afflicted from the strong, urging doctors to send anyone showing signs of mental or physical disabilities to special asylums where they would be put to death (described as “mercy killings”) in order to enhance the genetic purity of the Aryan race, filling out questionnaires that were sent out to mental institutions, hospitals and other institutions caring for the chronically ill, where more than 400,000 people were sterilized against their will, while up to 300,000 were killed under a nationwide euthanasia program, taking up “needless” space for more well-deserving soldiers wounded in action.  These killing centers served as the training grounds for the SS officers eventually assigned to extermination camps.  Among the more unflinching depictions is Elisabeth being removed from the family home against her will by German authorities following a diagnosis of schizophrenia, as Elisabeth was prone to swooning episodes of elevated intensity, not dangerous or particularly harmful, but different, like removing all her clothing and playing a Bach refrain on the piano, Bach "Schafe können sicher weiden" from BWV 208 - YouTube (4:58), a piece of amazing beauty and eloquence that literally defines her character, where the Gestapo head of the Dresden women’s clinic, Sebastian Koch as Professor Carl Seeband, initially has her sterilized before assigning her to the euthanasia program, set to the weirdly unworldly music of Klaus Nomi - The Cold Song 1982 - YouTube (4:07) as we eerily witness the guards march a group of naked girls into the showers, lock the doors, and turn on the gas.  Despite our familiarity with history, this is still the most dramatically shocking scene of the film, even as it feels overly exploitive, with little finesse shown by the director to the ultimate savagery of the event, as the ugly historical truths have already been imprinted.  It is the senselessness of her loss that haunts viewers the most, as we simply don’t forget the barbarous nature of this State-imposed mass slaughter, never really losing a connection to Elizabeth’s memory, as she was the most cherished member of the family to young Kurt (Tom Schilling), who grows up to become the lead figure in the film.  Displaying more artistic talent than any of his fellow students, Kurt becomes the prized pupil of the artistic director of the Dresden art academy (Hans-Uwe Bauer), where the East Germans remained under the political domination of the Russian communist movement, where the only valuable art was social realism, meant to inspire the working class.  Under the banner of communism, all other art was deemed self-centered and bourgeois, compatible with other consumer products on display, of no real social value.  Curious how political viewpoints tarnish the value of art, where the political ideal must supersede any artistic model, devaluing not only art but the worth of the individual, who is viewed as weak and worthless all alone, as working in a collective defines the greater good.  While that may be the ideal, little of artistic value was produced under this suffocating system, instead showing signs of defections to the West, which was the East German justification for building the Berlin Wall. 

What follows is the obligatory romance, with Kurt meeting a fellow student also named Elisabeth, but known as Ellie, Paula Beer from Frantz (2016) and Transit  (2018), who is studying fashion design, immediately falling in love, though he has no idea that her father, former SS officer Professor Seeband, ordered the murder of his aunt.  While this creates some intrigue, what’s immediately apparent is how underwritten Ellie’s part is, as she’s simply window dressing, never really a full-fledged character, always viewed as a ghostly mirror image of the initial Elisabeth role.  In fact it’s her father with a more prominent role, rebounding from his initial fall from grace, stripped of his authority after the war, yet still managing to land on his feet, where he remains a shining example of postwar success, winning prestigious accolades from the medical community, pledging his fidelity to communism, and despite his former history with the SS, he maintains his elite social status in the community, eventually returning to his former position.  As Kurt is a mere painter, he looks down upon him as an inferior suitor for his daughter, attempting to undermine their relationship, even devising a well-constructed lie about Ellie’s fragile health in order to abort their expectant child, intentionally damaging the future prospects of his daughter to ever conceive a child, still playing the eugenics card.  Ellie soon learns of his despicable acts, literally despising her father’s smug arrogance and domineering control, while Kurt reaches a dead-end in his artistic aspirations in the East as well, both defecting to the West when it was as easy as simply taking a transit to the other side, literally weeks before the construction of the wall, traveling light so no one would suspect,  bringing with them only a few possessions, which includes a photo album of Kurt’s family, which would prove significant, eventually using it as source material for his budding career.  Curiously, the first movie they see in the West is Psycho (1960).  While he was a wunderkind in the East, Kurt has no status whatsoever in the West, expressing little interest in traditional methods, choosing the Düsseldorf Academy of Fine Arts due to its heightened reputation for a free-spirited approach to avant garde art.  The film is literally an introductory course to painting and the various methods of radical artistic expression in the 60’s, including wildly pretentious looking examples of performance art that were all the rage, with one of the leading proponents being Joseph Beuys, a member of the Nazi youth who became a Luftwaffe pilot, offering a brilliant monologue where he describes being shot down in the Crimea, nursed back to health by Tartar tribesmen that he was sent to bomb, reinventing himself as an artist, played in the film by an eccentric professor who never takes off his hat (Oliver Masucci), and while he’s not identified as Beuys, that’s who the character is modeled after.  The professor takes a particular interest in Kurt, suggesting “you have seen more than any of us,” himself moved by tragedy and personal loss, granting him admittance on a hunch, offering him a studio and privileged status, yet the open-ended chance to create whatever he wants leaves him a bit awed at the prospects, just staring at a blank canvas for days on end until suddenly he feels inspired to begin a series of photo paintings, which include a picture of himself as a young boy with Elisabeth, or staunch passport photos of an overly rigid Professor Seeband, then blurring them in white paint, where they resemble fading memories, or optical illusions.  Amazingly, the paintings suggest a unique connection when he integrates Seeband’s portrait into the picture of Elisabeth, a dazzlingly effective dissolve technique, which is the start of a new career of instant success.  Interviewed by the press after a gallery exhibition, he makes claims about anonymous art pursuing “the truth,” yet the irony is that he’s no closer to it, but viewers given the backdrop to the story may be devastated by the redemptive implications where art truly does intersect with reality in strange and mysterious ways.