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Film: The Lives of Others

A continuing series of "out of school" Oscar reviews by Motion Picture Academy Member Roger L. Simon My friend novelist David Freeman said the German movie The Lives of Others would remind blasé me why I was once interested in working in the movies and he was right. Thirty-three year old Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's first film about life under the Stasi (East German State Security) is a masterpiece of political cinema with the depth and lingering impact of a serious novel, an extreme rarity in movies these days. It is also a riveting theatrical experience. The film won Best Picture at the European Film Awards (after being astonishingly rejected by the Berlin and Cannes Festivals - more on this below) and should contend for the Best Foreign Language Oscar.

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December 17, 2006 - 8:46 pm

It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a movie that actually gave me something to think about afterwards – but this film’s picture of East Germany in 1984 (still so close, when you consider it) has stayed in my head since viewing the Academy DVD. The Lives of Others does what art does best. Like Isaac Singer’s post-Holocaust novels, it goes beyond the superficial conflicts of history to show us the cost of totalitarianism on the individual human level. What is it like – as it was then in the GDR – to live in a society where seemingly half the population is spying on the other half, betraying those closest to them? With this background, the subject almost inevitably becomes love, because it is in love – that most crucial, yet fragile, of human needs – where the betrayal is strongest and most personal.

Stories of husbands, wives and lovers selling each other out to the Stasi are legion and this movie turns on such a situation, in this case the relationship of a famous East German playwright and his leading lady. The Stasi spies upon this couple and, ultimately, she is co-opted by the intelligence agency. But the film goes further by showing the ramifications of spying on the psyches of the spies themselves, most tellingly in the character of Weisler, extraordinarily performed by one-time East German actor Ulrich M√ºhe. Watching this man’s metamorphosis from a typical party apparatchik to empathic human being is one of the more heartening character changes I have ever seen in the cinema and what gives this movie its emotional power. M√ºhe’s personal story (his wife, also an actress, spied on him) mirrors in many ways the plot of the movie and it is worth considering whether he inspired the film for the younger writer-director.

But more significant is the movie’s pungent message for our time. You cannot help but think of contemporary Europe’s strange inertia in the face of Islamism’s encroachment into its territory while watching this tale of the Eighties unfold. The same peculiar passivity pervades Europe now as it did before, during the Nazi period and under Soviet occupation. Only the truly brave dare to rock the boat. Most are content to go along, to not have their lives disrupted, no matter how extreme the threat.

Perhaps that is the key to why a film of such obvious high artistic merit in almost every area of filmmaking (script, direction, camera, acting) amazingly was not chosen to compete at Berlin and Cannes. Those managing those festivals are often apparatchiks themselves of an only slightly different sort. This film’s vision, plus its obvious disapproval of communist totalitarianism, did not fit their narrative. These cinema apparatchiks prefer the more chic, romanticized “ostnostalgie” for the communist period to the harsher reality of how it really was – or, by extension, how it might actually be if that more active current totalitarianism, sharia, further infiltrates their continent. To me, at least, the inertia toward these twin totalitarianisms is of a piece and, again, few in Europe want to be reminded of either of them. Perhaps that is why they dislike Americans so much now. We disturb their inertia.

So that brings me to the ongoing subject of these reviews – how this Academy member will vote this year at our Academy Awards. Typically the Academy – for reasons chauvinistic and economic – abjures foreign language films in the Best Picture category, even great ones. Whatever the qualities of The Lives of Others it will not be able to break through this wall. The writers’ branch, however, has sometimes exhibited a more generous streak to things foreign. Spain’s Pedro Almodovar was a recent nominee for Best Screenplay. As a member of that branch, I am announcing here that I will do my, admittedly small, best with my colleagues to promote a similar nomination for von Donnersmarck. He more than deserves it.

Although… to be perfectly honest… I am of two minds. I read with dismay in a recent column by the perspicacious Anne Thompson that von Donnersmarck has become the flavor of the month in Hollywood, hobnobbing with Brad Pitt, etc. I don’t begrudge him his success, but as a member of the audience, I would hate to see the young German go Hollywood and lose contact with a subject about which he has a great deal to say.

Already a hit in Germany, The Lives of Others will go into limited release in the US on February 9, 2007.

Roger L. Simon was nominated for an Academy Award in screenwriting for his adaptation of Isaac Singer’s Enemies, A Love Story.

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