Thursday 24 June 2010

Stasi surveillance

The Lives of Others, dir. Von Donnersmarck (2006)

One of the most reliable ways to judge a work of art is what is known as the Day After Effect. That is to say, one should sleep on the engagement of a piece of art before one’s opinion is thrust forward. Perhaps one of the best examples of this dictum that I’ve come across, in recent years, is the 2006 German film, The Lives Of Others (Das Leben Der Anderen), directed by rookie filmmaker Florian Henckel Von Donnersmarck. It’s the sort of film that, upon first watch, seems much better than when you really think about it. If you agree with its politics, as most film critics do, you are going to ‘like’ the film.

Perhaps the best example of this is when conservative icon, William F. Buckley, claimed this was the greatest film he’d ever seen, because of its seeming anti-Communist stance (it’s really an anti-authoritarian stance). And, certainly, The Lives Of Others is a good, solid film, and certainly a cut above typical Hollywood thrillers, but it’s also as certainly a few cuts below the great films that have come from Europe, over the years. On a purely technical level, the film has the visuals of a competent telefilm, but its greatest flaw is a rather puerile script, written by the director; mainly the old art can change the world nonsense. The main thrust of the film is how an East German Stasi officer, in 1984, suddenly has a change of art while invading the privacy of a prominent playwright, mainly because he reads the works of political playwright Bertolt Brecht (surprise, surprise) and decides to abandon his totalitarian ways. God, the idea of art as a tool of sociology is really tiresome, but this film suckle that tit till it’s dry.

Of course, there is no reason for this, save the exposure to art, for the film opens by showing the Stasi officer, Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe), teaching a class at the Stasi school, and ever the loyal apparatchik. His superior, and longtime friend, Lt. Col. Grubitz (Ulrich Tukur) seeks to work his way up the patronage path in the government by complying with the request of Minister Bruno Hempf (Thomas Thieme), who wants him to spy on playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch), a seemingly loyal Communist, because Hempf develops the hots for Dreyman’s girlfriend, the famed stage actress, Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck). Wiesler bugs Dreyman’s Berlin apartment, and intimidates a neighbor who has seen this, by threatening the college career of her daughter. Wiesler and another agent then dutifully listen to and record everything that goes on in Dreyman’s flat, summarizing everything from conversations to sex acts.

Then, seemingly impressed by Dreyman’s and Sieland’s intellects, Wiesler has a turn of heart, even to the point of ‘borrowing’ the playwright’s book of Brecht’s works, and reading it, and clearly being moved. A secondary factor in Wiesler’s ‘turn’ (and one that would have been more realistic as the primary cause) is his discovery that he is spying on Dreyman not for purely political reasons, but because of Grubitz’s desire to suck up to Hempf, who seeks to put Dreyman away so he can have Sieland for himself. Thus, Wiesler sees that he is not working on behalf of a system he believes in, but for corrupt people who abuse the system for personal gain. Something anathema to ‘true’ Communism, and something which suggests that Wiesler may not have been the real ‘turncoat,’ merely protecting Dreyman not only for his ‘purity’ as an artist, but because he seeks to undermine his ‘corrupt’ friend and his friend’s would be patron. He could resent being asked to lie to prove a loyalty to a person rather than his beloved ideology, and takes revenge by undermining his superiors. Of course, Wiesler is not above debauchery, himself, as he makes ample use of the Stasi’s internal system of prostitutes. His life, outside his job, is barren and lonely.

But, the artists he spies on are not all proper, either, as Sieland willingly whores herself to Hempf, to keep her place as a stage actress. She is also addicted to painkillers, which Hempf provides, but which are illegal, and could get her jailed. Wiesler finds this out, and electronically rings Dteman’s apartment doorbell, so that he answers the door in time to see Sieland leaving the Minister’s car, thus knowing of her infidelity. Wiesler then intervenes, and approaches Sieland at a bar, flatters her that she is a great actress, knowing this will fortify her ego, and shame her into not cheating on Dreyman, a man it seems that Wiesler wishes he was.

Dreyman then writes a tract, to be publishe din the West German magazine, Der Spiegel, about the growing suicide rate in East Germany, and how the state has stopped publishing suicide statistics, instead referring to it as ‘self-murder.’ He writes this after a blacklisted theater director he was friends with suicides. He is aided in this by other blacklisted artists. He uses a smuggled in portable typewriter he hides under a floorboard in his apartment, and uses red ink, which is somehow harder to identify and trace than black ink. The need for the smuggled typewriter is because the Stasi knows the type face of all the typewriters used by artists and dissidents. Wiesler’s growing sympathies get the better of him, and he elides many ‘incidents’ which could have brought Dreyman down. He even ignores the words of a child he meets in an elevator, who asks if he is with the Stasi, because his father thinks the Stasi is an evil thing. At first, Wiesler seems to want to ask for the child’s father’s name, but then hesitates, and lets it pass.

Hempf, meanwhile, has turned his wrath away from Dreyman and towards Sieland, who spurned him. He tells Grubitz of her illegal drug addiction, and she is caught, and finks out Dreyman as the author of the Der Spiegel article. But she does not mention where the typewriter is. A Stasi search team tears apart his apartment, but find nothing. Grubitz also turns on Wiesler, suspecting him of either incompetence or being a traitor. To ‘redeem’ himself, he is ordered to interrogate Sieland. He makes sure to slowly turn around to reveal himself to her, knowing that the actress will compose herself, and not reveal their prior meeting, which would damn them both further. He gets her to tell him where the typewriter is hidden, but gets to the apartment first, steals it, and disposes of it. Grubitz heads up the search party, and when he heads for the floorboards, where it was hidden, Sieland looks at Dreyman, who now knows she is the traitor, and leaves the apartment. Dreyman is relieved, momentarily, until Sieland runs out in front of an oncoming truck. Dreyman runs out to comfort her as she dies. He clearly believes she is the one who took the typewriter. Grubitz tells him their information about him was wrong, and leaves with Wiesler.

On the way back to the Stasi headquarters, Grubitz tells Wiesler his career in the Stasi is over, and he is relegated to a job steaming open letters until he retires. One gets the sense that Wiesler never cared for his career, but for the ‘cause,’ and was turned off by Grubitz’s self-serving careerism. We then flashforward to four years and seven months later. Wiesler is opening letters when a co-worker (who, in a nice in-joke, earlier made a joke about East German head Erich Honecker to Grubitz) with a radio tells him of the fall of the Berlin Wall. En masses, the workers depart their stations. In subsequent years, Dreyman learns from ex-Minister Hempf that he was under surveillance. He uncovers the microphones, in a scene that recalls the more frantic ending of Francis Ford Coppola’s superior 1974 film, The Conversation. He then requests his Stasi files under the new freedom of inormatiomn policies under reunification. He learns Sieland could not have been the person who removed his typewriter. Then he sees that the person who surveiled his was HGW XX/7.

He is amazed to see not only that information was omitted, but that this operative fabricated the details of a whole play Dreyman and his cohorts were supposed to have written for the 40th anniversary of East Germany’s founding. Then he sees a red ink smudge on the last report, and he realizes that HGW XX/7 had to have removed the typewriter. He sets out to locate this man, and finds Wiesler now working as a mailman. He first wants to approach him and thank him, but thinks better of it. Another two years pass and Dreyman has a new book coming out. Wiesler sees the ad for it in a local bookshop. It is a novel titled Sonata For A Good Man. Wiesler inspects the book, and sees the dedication: To HGW XX/7, in gratitude. The lonely and defeated man buys it, and when the checkout clerk asks if he wants it gift wrapped, Wiesler says, punningly, ‘No, it’s for me.’

It’s a terrific ending, for a film that has about fifteen minutes worth of time between it and Sieland’s death, and a number of places where the film could have ended (Hollywood would have ended it at the actress’s death). But, it’s simply a fantasy that most artists dream of, at least motivationally. It’s well acted on all fronts, and the bald, gaunt Mühe, a famed theater actor, whose life was similar to Dreyman’s, is outstanding, especially considering he was dying of cancer at the time. But, everything else, of a technical matter, is utterly pedestrian, from the lighting and cinematography, by Hagen Bogdanski, to the screenplay, and even the film’s score, which is sparingly applied (a good choice).

The tidbits on Mühe come from the extra features on the DVD, put out by Sony, which shows the film in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio. These include deleted scenes, a making of featurette, and an audio commentary by director Donnersmarck. It’s an ok commentary, if you want to know of the director’s life and making of the film, or his research into the East German past. But, there is little of real art discussed, save for Donnersmarck’s naïve beliefs about its ‘power,’ etc., and the tossing about of buzzwords like ‘courage’ and ‘exploration.’ The film is also subtitled in gold, which is always a good way to go to ease the reading of words. Naturally, an English language dubbing would have been optimal, but few directors, these days, seem to care for their foreign audiences, even as the cheapness of doing this, on DVDs, makes it not at all an economic burden, merely one of faux artistic pride.

Of course, most of the positive criticism for the film is either explicitly or implicitly in agreement with both the film’s political sentiments, and the artistic claim I have stated it makes. The few critics of the film, naturally, frame their criticisms not artistically, but based upon the director’s supposed failure to truly depict how hard life really was in East Germany, or that a Wiesler could not have existed in reality, for the Stasi was so paranoid about loyalty that they always worked in pairs, etc. Of course, these criticism miss the point as much as the positive ones do. That Wiesler may not have been able to exist in reality has nothing to do with the diegetic reality of the film, wherein he functions quite well, save for the rather thin reason for his ‘treason.’ As stated, it would have been more plausible if he protected Dreyman so that Grubitz and Hempf lost face, for abusing the ‘good will’ of the Communist state. Few critics, though, have commented on the drab visuals (including those not intended), the trite dialogue between the artists, and the presence of numerous melodramatic plot twists used merely to move the sometimes slow moving 137 minute film along (it could have lost 30 minutes to great positive effect). Despite this, it is a solid film, but one likely not deserving of an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Picture, which it won.

I mentioned its affinity to The Conversation, but this film is far more prosaic, and, as terrific an acting performance as Mühe provides, his character is simply not nearly as complex as Gene Hackman’s Harry Caul, nor is his self-doubt as realistically (and, more importantly, effectively) depicted. He should have been protecting Dreyman to screw Grubitz, rather than for Dreyman’s sake (or even because he, too, lusted for Sieland), because that would have been believable, and added layers of depth to Wiesler’s conversion (so, too, could shading have been thus added to Wiesler’s taking of the typewriter- is he protecting Dreyman, or trying to hide his own prior protection of Dreyman? But, that also would have required a depth of life experience and writerly ability that the callow Donnersmarck, and his rather straightforward plot, lacked. However, all in all, a good effort from a first time filmmaker, and one that deserved applause, if not all the plaudits it received.  For all its flaws, the screenplay and film, at least, attempt something of depth, even if, overall, they come up short. Wiesler ultimately loses faith not in the ‘system,’ but in the people who run the system; this is why he is so disconsolate, even after the fall of the Berlin Wall, for his system is now dead.

The Lives Of Others does fall prey to the Day After Effect, for its flaws stick more than its good qualities, but it’s worth a viewing for those good qualities, faithful or less. And the number of films, American or not, these days, that can claim that, would take a far better interrogator than Wiesler to uncover.


Enjoyed this article? Share it with others.

Resources

The Times BFI 53rd London Film Festival

Internet Movie Database
IMDB - does exactly what it says on the tin

BFI
British Film Institute’s Finest

BFI’s Sight and Sound
World cinema eating its heart out

They shoot pictures, don’t they?
Dedicated to the art of directing

Barbican Film
Some of the most innovative films in town

ICA Film
Independent, political and art-house gorge-fest

National Media Museum
Not nearly as bad as it sounds

Like what you see? - keep it that way, support Culture Wars online review.