Sunday, March 11, 2007

The Lives of Others (von Donnersmarck, 2006)

The winner of the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, The Lives of Others is the debut feature of German director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. You may have trouble remembering that name, but you will certainly not have the same trouble remembering the film. Von Donnersmarck has crafted a thoroughly engrossing tale of a governmental spy in early 1980’s East Germany. When we first see Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler (played by Ulrich Mühe of Funny Games), he is leading a lecture, instructing students in proper interrogation technique. A subject that sticks to the same answers, we are told, is actually lying, because this demonstrates that he has rehearsed his story. We also see Wiesler preserve the seat cover sat on by the subject during the interview so that the scent may be used later by dogs trained to track down enemies of the state. Guilt, in this time and place, is presumed. Innocence requires devotion to socialist ideals in every waking moment of your life.

Soon Wiesler is assigned to Operation Lazlo, a surveillance mission in which he has been asked to spy upon writer Georg Dreyman and Christa-Maria Sieland, his actress wife. Dreyman is considered by the government to be the last non-subversive playwright in East Germany. Indeed, Georg and Christa have learned how to operate within the system, choosing their words in public extremely carefully and submitting to certain arrangements that are humiliating at best, soul-destroying at worst. Listening in from a makeshift surveillance center in the attic above their apartment, Wiesler notes down every small detail that could point to disloyalty to the state. However, when he discovers the true purpose behind his assignment, his perspective on the couple undergoes an unexpected change. He begins to empathize with their situation and admire the sacrifices they make to be able to continue their art. He even weeps when they experience extreme sorrow.

The Lives of Others achieves its power by pitting two longtime rivals against each other: the artist and the state. As always, the state has technology and weaponry and brute force. But, the artist, von Donnersmarck argues, holds a different kind of power. It is a power that is not coercive, but rather seductive. It requires participation, but once experienced, it can disarm any thug. Playing a beautiful sonata on his piano, Georg remarks that it would be impossible for anyone to hear the piece – fully take it in – and not be a good man. Although he does not know it, his words (and the sonata) have been heard by one of his most dangerous enemies. Von Donnersmarck’s master stroke is that Wiesler does not just experience the art – in a sense he actually becomes the artist. With his subsequent actions, he takes on the roles of his assigned subjects – playwright and actor – and alters all three of their lives forever.

The Lives of Others builds towards a tense, emotional climax that is both thematically and dramatically satisfying, although more finicky viewers may question the plausibility of the extraordinary risk taken by one of the key characters. There is also the question of a highly serendipitous clue that leads to a conclusion that some may find pat. However, these seem like trivial complaints in the face of a remarkable and passionate expression of the way that art can access our core humanity, pushing us inevitably towards empathy.



Post a Comment

<< Home