Monday, March 12, 2007

The Lives of Others

by Jackrabbit Slim
One of the surprises from the recent Academy Awards was that the German film, The Lives of Others, won the Best Foreign Language Film over Pan's Labyrinth, the Mexican film. Pan won three other Oscars, but got aced out by Lives. However, those who had seen the film were not surprised, which reminds us that the voting in that category is limited to those who see all five nominees in a theater and pre-arranged screenings. I caught up with Lives on Sunday, and while I may not have voted for it over Pan, it is a worthy victor.

As to why it won, I can only surmise that The Lives of Others tells just as terrifying a story as Pan does, but without any fanciful fairy-tale imagery, which might have turned off the older, more conservative voters who usually dominate this category. The German film, written and directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmark (research project for the future--longest name of any Oscar winner?) is similar to Pan in that deals with the horrors of a totalitarian state, but the evils in this film are all human.

The film tells the story of a member of East Germany's secret police, the Stasi, in the early eighties in Berlin. Wiesler is a man who is totally dedicated to his job, which is to capture the enemies of the state, which in East Germany's case was anyone who uttered a peep of dissent. He seems to be so dedicated to his work that he has no family and no other interests, a faceless bureaucrat who has no problem with imprisoning people for minor offenses. One night his boss, the minister of culture, takes him to the theater for the premiere of a play by a popular playwright, played by Sebastian Koch. The playwright is one of the few in the country who is not seen as disloyal, and actually believes in his country. Wiesler gets suspicious, though, and volunteers to monitor Koch and his girlfriend, his lead actress, played by Martina Gedeck.

As Wiesler listens to every conversation that takes place in their apartment, he becomes drawn into their lives, and the film in some ways parallels Coppola's The Conversation. Wiesler undergoes a change, and a cat and mouse game ensues between him, the artists that Koch runs with, and Wiesler's higher ups. I don't want to go any further than that, because this is the kind of film which is difficult to see what is coming next.

Von Donnersmark has written an excellent script and directed to fully maximize the justifiable paranoia of the time period (with the current administration in the U.S., you might leave this film and go home and check to see if there are any microphones behind your light switches). I think the largest kudos are due to Ulrich Muhe as Wiesler, the kind of man who blends into any crowd, which makes him all the more terrifying here. Watching this character grow over the course of the film is quite rewarding.


Blogger Brian said...

Really want to see it, but haven't had a chance yet. Hopefully, it sticks around another week because I won't get a chance until the weekend.

3/12/2007 02:54:00 PM  
Blogger Brian said...

Finally got around to it, and enjoyed it a lot. At first I had some problem with Wiesler's character; I couldn't figure out what it was about Dreyman that was any different from any of the other dissidents he had investigated. Why'd he decide to help him? Thinking about it more, though, it makes more sense to me.

I have to say, though, as good as it was, I wouldn't have come close to voting for it over Pan's Labyrinth for the Foreign Film Oscar.

3/22/2007 11:51:00 PM  
Blogger Jackrabbit Slim said...

I think the key scene was Wiesler stealing the volume of Brecht and reading it. Deep down he had an artistic soul, which he had never acknowledged, and this triggered empathy with the artists.

3/23/2007 07:00:00 AM  
Blogger Brian said...

I don't know, to me it seemed like he stole the Brecht book because he was sympathetic to the artists, not the other way around.

I came around to thinking that he was simply offended by what he knew to be the corrupt motives for the surveillance operation in the first place. And, in fact, I kind of like the irony, that Wiesler's true belief in Socialist ideology is what led him to betray the government preaching that ideology.

3/23/2007 10:18:00 AM  
Blogger Nick said...

I fucking hate Brecht, that fucking hypocrititical communist cunt.

Read a course in literary theory where we were supposed to do a ten page treatment on how his theatrical "achievements" reflected his political reality. Five years on I'm still not begun. More I read about him, comparing that to his plays, more he shows himself to be an opportunistic two-faced little shit. What a fuckhead. Still waiting for them to change subject.

3/23/2007 12:43:00 PM  
Blogger Jackrabbit Slim said...

I think the only Brecht that is tolerable to sit through is Threepenny Opera. He was a big name during my days in college theater. Modes of alienation and all that. I read Mother Courage and The Good Woman of Szechuan. Reading him did not fundamentally change my weltschmertz.

3/23/2007 12:56:00 PM  
Blogger Nick said...

His modes of alienation are a gimmick that was taken too far and made into silly science. While a reaction to the German romanticism of the time was justified, reducing actors to unexpressive dolls, whose only purpose was to walk from point A to B and serve as megaphones for his simplistic unambiguous polemics, has always struck me as the very antithesis of theatre. It was at the very least a deformed of the essence of acting, degrading actors and, I personally believe, his own fucking private little insult to the audience willing to pay to sit through it.

While some of Brechts plays are good, they are overrated compared to things that contemporaries such as Arthur Miller, Eugene O'Neill and Tennessee Williams wrote, and claims that most of them were at the very least co-written by many of the talented women he surrounded himself with are too many to throw out of hand. Even the Threepenny Opera was a remake, and the most memorable parts are the tunes written by Weill.

3/23/2007 02:35:00 PM  
Blogger Jackrabbit Slim said...

No disagreement here.

3/23/2007 02:39:00 PM  

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