Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Das Leben der Anderen

The Lives of Others is Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's first film. I found this out only after I had seen the movie and while I was a bit shocked, I was also very humbled. The feeling was similar to what I used to feel when watching a match in which Zidane was in particularly good form [1]. You are in the presence of genius, you feel absolutely talent less and useless and yet you feel lucky that you are seeing that kind of brilliance. Watching The Lives of Others was a similar experience. Of all the movies I have seen that came out last year, this one is by far the best. (And yes, I thought it was better than Pan’s Labyrinth).

The movie is set in East Germany circa 1984, a time when the East German statsi operated in full force (at the time, the movie informs us, it employed more than ninety thousand personnel). It dwells not only on the lives of those observed by the state machinery but the observers as well. Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe), is a statsi official. A good one at that. He fits the ideal of such a secret service policeman – unflinching in his belief in the state, unmoved by torture, unwilling to trust anyone.

So unwilling to trust, that on attending a performance of a play by Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) he suggests spying on the playwright. This despite the fact that Dreyman enjoys state patronage and in the words of an official “is the only non subversive writer we have”. It is thus, then, that Wiesler becomes exposed to each and every aspect of Dreymans life, art and relationship with his girlfriend and the actress of his plays, Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck).

It’s a scary picture of life in the Orwellian world. Dreymans credentials don’t put him beyond the grasp of surveillance. As a woman, as an actress even more so, Sieland has her own bargains to make. And despite his devotion to the state, or rather because of it, Wiesler lives an utterly lonely and miserable existence. They are similar in that they are all vulnerable at their core. In a sense they are all at someone else’s mercy, they can never be in full control of their destiny.

A number of themes run through The Lives of Others, most importantly (and subtly) the incompatibility between art and an authoritarian state and the disillusionment that ensues. Circumstances eventually push Dreyman towards dissent. Wiesler’s commitment to the state starts wavering. As a result of some kind of Stockholm syndrome from listening in on the conversations of the artists or a slow reaction to reading the copy of Brecht he has stolen from Dreyman, one can only guess.

The most hauntingly beautiful scene in the movie, and its turning point, is when Dreyman on learning of his friend’s suicide plays a composition called Sonata for a Good Man on his piano. He tells the story of Lenin, who refused to listen to Beethoven’s Appassionata because he feared it would stop him from carrying out the revolution. No man who has ever listened, truly listened, to such music could be bad [2], says Dreyman. Wiesler, listening in, weeps silently.

The scene sets the tone for the rest of the movie, and it somehow connects you to the characters you see on the screen. Twenty minutes later, I was the one who was weeping silently, watching the events of the movie unfold. There is such humanity, beauty and bitter sweet poignancy to the story that one would have to be made of stone not to be touched by it. Wiesler is the centre of the story and Ulrich Mühe’s fabulous, fabulous turn is one reason why the movie works so well. Gabriel Yard’s wonderful score is another. If Lenin is Wiesler, then the Appassionata becomes Yard’s Sonata for a Good Man. The movie however, tells the story that might have been had Lenin listened to Beethoven. The reference to the Appassionata is particularly apt; The Lives of Others encompasses all the emotions of Beethoven's Sonata No.23. The story it tells is about the people who are trying to fight and overcome the terrible and despairing circumstances they find themselves in.

[1] Bad analogy I know, but watching Zidane in form is watching true grace and beauty.

[2] This I truly, truly believe.

[3] The movie reminded me of something my piano teacher used to say. Mozart was pure genius and Bach’s works are the embodiment of baroque but nothing compares to Beethoven in pure, simple heartbreaking beauty.

[4] Interestingly, Mühe’s wife spied on him for the Statsi for the entire period of their marriage, supplying them with hundreds of pages of information.

[5] The topic of the authoritarian state has been recurring over the last week. Not just in The Lives of Others, but also in Tahar Ben Jelloun’s This Blinding Absence of Light, which I just finished reading. Jelloun won the 2004 IMPAC Dublin Award for the book and its one of the most stark, simple and disturbing books I have ever read. (The only other time I felt so claustrophobic while reading a book was when I was reading Andre Gide’s Strait is the Gate.) I wanted to write about the book but I’m not sure I can. I am still quite disturbed by it; especially by the fact that it’s based on a true story. I really don’t know why I continue to be shocked by the barbarity of the human race.


Revealed said...

I think we keep hoping that we aren't as barbaric as we are. And every time interval spent away from obvious evidence of barbarism increases the hope. Until it's squished down by another horrendous act witnessed.
Flick sounds interesting. Will put it on the list (that never seems to end! I'm almost in despair)

niTin said...

I was going to comment on the rather inopportune simile comparing the movie with zidane's play (but that's only because I am totally not into any kind of sports), but your footnotes absolved
Excellent post. I already recommended it to a friend who asked about the movie.
There's nothing more I can add, except perhaps the fulfilment you could recieve from a job which is basically state-sponsored stalking.
Or maybe, it's just me.

Alok said...

very well written post... this has been running in the neighbourhood theatre since the last two weeks. will definitely catch it this weekend. have been watching so many movies since the last few weeks that i am now suffering from a serious film fatigue. And i have to watch Inland Empire again too!

Karan said...

I agree on every count, this was a great movie. Filmwise, this surpasses Pan's Labyrinth on every level. What I wanted to say then was that the latter just struck a deep, personal chord with me.
Btw, I finally finished the essay.

hedonistic hobo said...

must watch this movie unfortunately i doubt i'll be able to in india. oh it shall be hard parting from the curzon sohoand the renoir cinemas. arty films *sob sniff sob* goodbye

Falstaff said...

wow! you really have caught the footnote bug, haven't you?

Szerelem said...

revealed: That is so true. I guess in some sense it's just inherent in us, it's just a metter of when it comes out.
And you should see the movie..it's excellent

nitin: Well, thank you for raving about it so much that I just had to see it. (Well I would have anyway, but still). And you would want to be state sponsored stalker? Hmmm....now why doesn't that sound weird coming from you?

alok: Thanks. You must see it! Film fatigue - I know what that feels like.

karan: I know that's what you meant :) That was just a general statement in the post. And congrats on finally finishing the essay! Now you can look forward to essay two!! (not).

hobo: Well, it won the Best Foreign Film Oscar so it might be showing in India. But yeah, totally understand the pain parting with Soho and the arty film/theatre scene.

Falstaff: I know. They just took on a life of their own (plus I didn't know how to fit them into the main text of the post). But you're still largely to blame for this!

Salil said...

I don't really know whether Zidane would be able to sleep easy, if he knew that you were out there... !! :P

Great Movie, watched queen? !!

Szerelem said...

Salil Suri, you are close to being blacklisted by me. Seriously.

And a lot of people wouldn't be able to sleep easy if they knew I was out there :P
And yes have seen The Queen

ggop said...

I loved this movie. I avoided Pan's Labryinth after hearing of the graphic violence. Your review is really well written.

I want to see Goodbye Lenin next. Hope its enjoyable to.

Szerelem said...

gg, you should watch Pan's Labyrinth. It does have some violence, but it's not that bad and the movie as a whole is really good.

And Goodbye Lenin is excellent as well. It makes a good companion to The Lives of Others

That Armchair Philosopher said...

oh wow. 8.5/10 - i've gotta watch that.

Salil said...

Blacklisted..? just when i surface again to make human contact, you are going to banish me to the badlands of bengaloooru?


Am here to stay, and I shall make up, buzz me when you online next!!---- its been a while [croons staind]....