Apr 19, 2007

Review: The Lives of Others

The Lives of Others, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's deserving Best Foreign Film Oscar-winner,* is as good a movie about spying as you’re ever likely to come across. Note that I called it a movie about spying, and not a movie about spies. There are far fewer movies actually about the voyeuristic act of spying, and not all of those are even about spies, per se, but several of them are quite excellent, like Coppola’s The Conversation or Hitchcock’s Rear Window. The Lives of Others fits easily in that auspicious company. And it actually is about a spy, as well as spying.

Hauptmann Gerd Weisler (Ulrich Muhe) is a high-ranking officer in the Stasi, East Germany’s dreaded secret police. Unlike some of his comrades and superiors, he appears to actually believe in what he does, and to believe firmly in the Communist Party. And he’s so good at his job that he even teaches classes on interrogation at the Stasi Academy. (The one class we witness, by the way, is fascinating, and revealing with regards to the interrogation techniques the Stasi used, which I can’t imagine are much different from what goes on today at Guantanamo Bay.) Weisler is a model agent, cold, reserved, and most importantly, far removed from his subjects. (He shows no compassion whatsoever for a family man who claims not to know how his neighbor escaped to the West, and doesn’t hesitate to threaten a woman’s daughter’s future if she refuses to cooperate.)

At first we, the film’s audience–and Weisler’s–are kept that same distance from him as a character. We meet from the perspective of his unlucky interrogation subject, setting him up as an antagonist rather than protagonist, starting us off at arm’s length. It’s an uncomfortable way to meet the main character. From the (at first) more relatable position of his boss, Grubitz (Ulrich Tukur, later revealed to be the true antagonist), we’re treated to Weisler’s superior, judgmental stare. Everywhere that Weisler goes, he is an observer, a voyeur. Grubitz takes him to a play, which he watches from a box with opera glasses. We’re treated to a long shot of Weisler looking back at us (and at Grubitz and his superior, the Minister of Culture) through those glasses, still relating to the subjects more than to the voyeur. Then we meet the playwright Georg Dreyman and his lead actress-slash-girlfriend Christa-Maria, soon to be the objects of Weisler’s espionage, and our perspective shifts. We see them first from his perspective, as a voyeur, witnessing a private moment through a half-shut door, from afar.

Shots continue to be framed voyeuristically as we get to know the couple along with Weisler, who bugs their entire apartment and sets up a listening station in the attic above them. The Minister of Culture feels that Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) may not be the model citizen he makes himself out to be, and worries that he’ll soon write something more subversive. It’s Weisler’s job to get proof. But as he spies on this couple, he becomes caught up in their private lives, in their personal struggles as well as political ones. Christa-Maria (Martina Gedeck, from The Good Shepherd) is not just an actor on stage, but in real life, putting on a show (along with Georg) for Weisler, even if she doesn’t realize it. But moved by the power of the theater he’s watching, Weisler chooses not to remain a passive observer, but to make the play interactive, literally scripting it himself by the end. The real-life drama Weisler takes in proves to be the purest example of revolutionary theater, moving its audience to the point of action.

When he meets Christa-Maria by chance in a nearby bar, he can’t help but attempt to sway her, to alter her character’s journey. Knowing she’s insecure about her art, and needs support, he offers that as a fan. "I’m your audience," he tells her when she asks who he is. Like any audience watching such powerful theater, he’s moved–and changed–by the experience.

The scenario reminded me of Bertolucci’s The Conformist, in which a facist agent assigned to infiltrate an anti-facist artistic circle finds the artists having a powerful effect on him. But here, the protagonist acts very differently from Bertolucci’s hero, resulting in very different consequences for himself and all involved. This isn’t a story about a nation selling its soul (as that was); this is about a wayward nation’s chance for redemption.

All of the artfulness in The Lives of Others is well-disguised, though, in a slick, fast-moving thriller filled with spying, political intrigue, love triangles, and ever-building suspense. The amazing shot composition and camera movement, the stunning use of color, and the suburb cinematography (courtesy of Hagen Bogdanski) all recall Hitchcock, as the lush, powerful score by Gabriel Yared and Stephane Moucha evokes the best of his frequent collaborator, Bernard Herrmann. All three leads turn in truly outstanding performances, and the whole movie creates a fantastic sense of time and place (to me, anyway, as someone who never lived in East Germany in 1984...). There’s a feeling of everyday dread, conveying well the constant fear that one is always being spied on.

The Lives of Others works on so many levels that it deserves to be seen by all fans of cinema, not just spy fans. It is a Cold War spy thriller, but it’s also so much more that even as an ardent fan of the genre, I tend to forget that. Like Rear Window and like The Conversation, it transcends its genre completely. It’s an involving, first-rate thriller, and a commentary on the power of visual storytelling. It’s one of the best movies of the decade.

*I loved Pan’s Labyrinth, and I think Guillermo del Toro crafted a fantastic, multi-layered, and very adult horror-fantasy. I was excited that Pan received as many accolades as it did, and thrilled that it was nominated for the Best Foreign Film Oscar. Would we finally see a genius horror director recognized in his own time, when for decades highly-influential pioneers of the genre (like Mario Bava, for example) had tread in relative obscurity? Although I’d wanted to see The Lives of Others prior to the Academy Awards, I didn’t get around to it, and when it beat Pan’s Labyrinth, I wasn’t happy. I was sure that it was another example of the Academy being traditionally conservative, being old, being narrow-minded, and failing to bestow such a well-deserved honor upon a movie that happened to fall into such a wrongfully-derided genre as "horror." Now, having seen The Lives of Others, I’m a little pissed off because I can’t fault the Academy for their choice. There is no way you can say that von Donnersmarck’s movie wasn’t worthy of that recognition. So, while I can strongly suspect that the Academy blacklisted Pan’s Labyrinth for its genre, I still have no proof. Drat! Both movies are superior pieces of filmmaking, and it’s a shame they had to compete against each other.

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