Monday, April 30, 2007

Loneliness & the Stasi - The Lives of Others

Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, 2006)
I started writing what I expected to be a fairly decent length review of The Lives of Others a couple of months ago, but my schedule didn’t allow me to complete it in time for its Australian release. By then, it had surprisingly won the Best Foreign Language Oscar and so, of course, there were lots of reviews out there. With limited time to write, I feel more inclined to put my energy into films that get less media coverage - to champion the underdogs, so to speak.

Nonetheless, there was one important point in particular that I wanted to make about this not insignificant film. I describe it in this way, because though it’s not a perfect film per se, it is an exceptional debut by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck that has significance in today’s political climate.

By chance, I saw the film a second time after our plan to see Raúl Ruiz’s Klimt was thwarted. We arrived at ACMI our customary 30 minutes early to find tickets had sold out two hours earlier – most unusual for ACMI! Being a Saturday evening, we phoned the Westgarth ahead to book tickets for The Lives of Others, which Zoe hadn’t seen. And just as well – when we arrived, there was a huge queue and the session booked out.

Something that overwhelmed me on first viewing, and confirmed on the second, was the theme of loneliness. Whether it’s fascism, communism or any variety of political extremism, a climate of fear and distrust ensues that serves to isolate people. The result is loneliness.

At every step of the film, whenever people related, whoever they related to or whatever their status, all seemed chronically lonely. Wiesler goes home to an empty and austere apartment – his only intimacy is a quick fuck with a Stasi prostitute. Minister Hempf is shown alone in his apartment. Grubitz is never seen relating to anyone other than as a miserable weasel. Stage director Hauser feels ostracised, and Jerska’s black-listing forces a loneliness that drives him to suicide. Everyone in the bar is drinking alone. Underscoring all these cold relationships are an austere lighting and muted blue and grey colour scheme.

People became reclusive within their own homes, as depicted by Dreyer’s neighbour, Frau Meineke, having been threatened by Weisler to have her daughter removed from university if she spoke a word to anyone. When Dreyer innocently asked her to help him with his tie, she was terror-struck and couldn’t retreat to her apartment quick enough, like a turtle to its shell.

Even our main protagonist, Georg Dreyer, whose home was depicted in warmer tones and is in a relationship, always seems alone. He tells his partner, Christa-Maria that he always feared two things: being alone and not being able to write. But now the thing he now fears the most is losing Christa, who is being secretly pursued sexually with vigour by Minister Hempf (which is really the reason Dreyer is put under surveillance).

Towards the end of the film, Weisler is in another post (pun not intended), presumably for the previous five years, steaming open letters in a dark, lonely office devoid of natural light, almost like a dungeon. Who do we see behind him? None other than the goofy Stasi underling we saw joking about Honecker earlier in the film.

Two years after the fall of the Berlin Wall and Weisler is still working with the post office, depicted as a broken and solitary man, quietly delivering letters as a lowly servant of the state. Dreyer by chance is shocked to discover that he had been under full surveillance but that he had had an unknown guardian angel, code named HGW XX/7.

People don’t change, Hempf snorts earlier in the film, and apparently this is so. Because even when Dreyer learns who his benefactor is and tracks him down, they do not meet. Despite Dreyer's gratitude, disjunction - still. It is only two years later, upon publication of Dreyer’s novel “Sonata to a Good Man” that he gets to thank Weisler from afar. The second viewing really confirmed the significance of this drawn out aspect of the ending.

I only want to briefly mention the political significance of The Lives of Others. Of course the title refers to the obsession of the Stasi – its stated aim was “to know everything” and was chiefly concerned with the lives of others. Weisler, when he’s at the theatre is spying on others. When he is in the elevator and a child talks innocently about his father, Weisler is extracting information that could put his father behind bars. No-one was safe.

The Stasi and the GDR were an extreme that had occurred before and has occurred since. The current ‘War on Terror’ is the latest chapter of political extremism from so-called liberal democracies that are abusing their power to subvert civil liberties. These powers may be used today or they may be used in the future. But various fascist-like powers are now in place that can be used to isolate people and deny them their human rights. And that’s as much as I want to say on that subject for now, though I welcome any input.

See also: The Evening Class Interview With Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck


Diana said...

I saw this film with my mother, who lived as a teenager through the Cultural Revolution in China. She was quick to pooh-pooh my over-dinner sentiments of "So was it really like that back then?"

"Don't kid youself," she said, "it's like that now everywhere. Governments keep watch, that's what governments do."

My impression that she admired the film, was even touched by it, but at the same time that it had offended her in some way because of her sensitivity toward the manner in which Communist countries were portrayed by the West; that she felt that the film had treated the subject matter unfairly.

I wanted to tell her that I thought that was part the different between then and now: it is not only others which we get to turn a critical eye on, but that we are allowed to be as self-flagellating about our own countries' failures and misdeeds as we chose. We even get to write and make films about it.

Paul Martin said...

Thanks for your comments, Diana. I like your mum's cynicism. And that's the whole point; that's why the film really resonates, and possibly why it got made. There's been a whole raft of films in recent times that all touch on the same type of critique of contemporary politics.

Phillip Noyce made the same point when he discussed his film, Catch A Fire. It's ostensibly about Apartheid, but when I asked him "why now?" he concurred that it was because of the relevance to current politics (like Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, etc).

Salvador (Puig Antich) was a film at La Mirada that carried a similar theme.

Every country sees itself as the good guys and the other side as the bad guys (we've even got an idiot in Washington who publicly uses those exact words). That's ignorance.

Just today, the news carried a story about the police using photos from driver's licences to be matched against a criminal database, and some government stooge saying only criminals have anything to fear. That's the same rationale that the Nazis used.

So, here I am getting caught up in politics (an important aspect of the film), and it's something I deliberately avoided discussing in my post... such is life.

Paul Martin said...

Anna Funder, author of Stasiland has written an interesting article published online for The Guardian.

It's not directly relevant to the point I'm making about loneliness, nor does it detract from it. But it does take Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck to task for his portrayal of Wiesler in The Lives of Others.

Funder argues that a Wiesler character in reality would never have been able to act independently in a totalitarian state (as he did in the film), but rather as part of a team which ensured peer scrutiny.

Of course, a film will often condense reality for artistic or practical purposes. I do think that a Wiesler-type character could have a change of heart or doubt his convictions, but Funder's argument is certainly reasonable that Wiesler would not have been free to act for the benefit of Dreyer to the degree depicted in the film.

Paul Martin said...

I forgot to mention that I found the above article on David Tiley's Barista, in which he discusses the article.

Phillip Kelly said...

Brilliant film.

Some people say "Pan's Labyrinth" should have won last year, but I don't know for certain. This one hit me hard.

Paul Martin said...

Phil, I found both films flawed. I found the flaws in The Lives of Others fairly minor and overshadowed by its strengths, particularly plot and character development, as well as the visuals.

With Pan's Labyrinth the main strengths were the visuals including set design and characters. But I found the writing highly flawed that made it nowhere near a candidate for best foreign language Oscar (which I believe you're referring to).

Interestingly, both films are critical of political extremism and making comments about the state of the world today, post 9/11.