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.

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