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The Lives of Others
(Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, Germany)
By Richard Porton
As a sort of postmortem to the aborted East German workers’ uprising of 1953, Bertolt Brecht, despite his own cozy relationship with the regime, wrote a poem entitled The Solution that facetiously urged the State to “dissolve the people and elect another.” The chasm between the playwright’s despairing commentary on his chosen homeland’s political cynicism and his craven capitulation to East German authoritarianism exemplifies the Janus-faced nature of the former German Democratic Republic—a police state with an altruistic veneer. An unvarnished look at the unsavoury options available to East German intellectuals (most of whom were much less pampered than Brecht) might have made a fascinating, if troubling film. Despite its enormous critical acclaim and popular appeal, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s debut The Lives of Others, recent winter of the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, insists on sentimental narrative panaceas. Von Donnersmarck cannot avoid a relatively unsparing depiction of the Stasi and its penchant for putting anyone suspected of the slightest deviation from the Party line under surveillance. But his film only gives a cursory glimpse of the totalitarian bureaucracy depicted in Massimo Ianetta and Nina Toussaint’s recent documentary, The Decomposition of the Soul (2002).
Finding a silver lining in the Stasi’s sordid legacy is not easy, but for commercial rather than political reasons The Lives of Others embraces a highly problematic, albeit crowd-pleasing, brand of inspirational humanism. Curiously enough, a film determined to reveal the ruthless underpinnings of what was once termed “actually existing socialism” is marred by a mechanistic conception of character that is not far removed from some of the equally stale clichés of socialist realism. The film’s many staunch defenders might well deflect its flaws by claiming that melodrama, with its apparently Manichean view of human motivations and unnuanced protagonists, has its own generic legitimacy. Yet the best melodramas (e.g. Nicholas Ray’s Bigger Than Life or Vincente Minnelli’s Some Came Running) prove convincing because the protagonists’ inner complexities shine through despite the requisite heightened emotional intensity. Donnersmarck instead regales us with a motley assortment of plaster saints, as well as villains who can barely refrain from twirling their mustaches.
Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch), the putative playwright hero, is an astonishingly naïve Communist true believer, whose rapid conversion to principled dissident might have been plotted by Syd Field on a ragged piece of graph paper. In a pivotal early sequence, Captain Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe), a loyal Stasi officer with an unswervingly grim demeanour, accompanies his immediate superior, Lieutenant Colonel Grubitz (Ulrich Tukur), and Bruno Hempf (Thomas Thieme), an oily and corrupt government minister, to a premiere of Dreyman’s most recent play. Despite being “the only non-subversive writer” in the entire country according to Grubitz, Dreyman is targeted as a candidate for Stasi surveillance on that very evening—presumably because his pristine reputation makes him almost too good to be true.
Wiesler comes off as a Stalinist straight arrow. The wily Hempf (whose beefy countenance makes him the mirror image of Georg Grosz’s caricatures of avaricious capitalists) is another story. His ham-fisted attempts to blackmail Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck), Dreyman’s beautiful live-in girlfriend (and leading lady) by demanding sexual favours as well as the inside dope on her supposedly upright paramour, are nominally successful. Quite fortuitously, his furtive trysts with one of the country’s most prominent actresses appall her boyfriend. The self-righteous Dreyman quickly awakes from his ideological stolidity and become a committed foe of the regime. Even more incongruously, Wiesler, the ultimate humourless Organization Man, experiences a gradual change and, besotted with the alluring actress, becomes a Stasi agent with a heart of (fool’s) gold, an operative willing to subvert an ongoing investigation and destroy his own spotless career.
Since cinema conditions us to expect, and even relish, unsavoury or evil protagonists, altruism can be difficult for some audiences to swallow. Nevertheless, while von Donnersmarck certainly didn’t set out to make a “feel good” Stasi film, his notions of good and evil are astonishingly static. It’s true that sledgehammer cinematic pyrotechnics don’t help—the first-time director, hailed in the press as a wunderkind, never moves the camera, unless, for example, to pan portentously to a newspaper announcing Gorbachev’s ascendancy, thereby sealing the fate of the movie’s more dastardly, but calmly oblivious, bureaucrats who have no idea that glasnost has arrived with a thud.
This sort of cinematic smugness has a fatal impact on the delineation of Wiesler’s quietly heroic political calisthenics and The Lives of Others’ supposedly uplifting denouement. Wiesler’s conversion crisis is pegged to a Brecht anthology he snatches from Dreyman’s study. Although litterateurs might appreciate, or at least wink at, the idea of poetry as deus ex machina, perhaps the single most ludicrous shot chronicles Wiesler’s epiphany as he reads a plangent passage from Brecht’s Baal. Nazi functionaries may have read Goethe in the morning and slaughtered with abandon in the afternoon, but loyal Stasi men apparently opened volumes of Brecht and were instantaneously transformed into civil libertarians. The Globe and Mail’s Rick Groen and The New Yorker’s Anthony Lane have noted parallels between Wiesler’s penitence and the anguished surveillance expert portrayed by Gene Hackman in The Conversation (1974).By the end of Coppola’s film, however, Hackman’s solitary electronics wizard seems to be staring into the abyss. Wiesler, by contrast, is implicitly anointed as a secular saint.
Dreyman’s pilgrim’s progress is equally fraught with irreconcilable contradictions. Another good man ensnared by a bad State, the playwright with matinee idol looks miraculously transcends the cutthroat political environment and emerges unscathed. His crisis of conscience also underlines von Donnersmarck’s extremely simplistic view of both dramaturgy and history. The plight of East German intellectuals and artists remains disturbing in this post-Communist era expressly because so few of them were unadulterated heroes or villains. During the Cold War, it might have been possible to point to Poland’s Adam Michnik or Czechoslovakia’s Vaclav Havel as straightforwardly liberal and selfless anti-Communist rebels. (Time, alas, has revealed their feet of clay as well.) In the GDR, the apparent voices of conscience, among them esteemed figures such as the playwright Heiner Müller and the novelist Christa Wolf, were eventually unmasked as guilty of “unofficial collaboration” with the Stasi apparatus. Even though the details of these and many other case histories are still unravelling, it’s clear that these individuals’ lives are too messy and baffling to be accommodated by an art house hit that allows little room for shades of gray. The untimely demise of the lovely Christa-Maria, as over-the-top as it might be deemed, represents von Donnersmarck’s sole stab at historical complexity. Virtually stripped of her identity, she is coerced into revealing details of her lover’s “subversive” activities to the Stasi authorities. Within this—one hesitates to the use the word “Orwellian” despite its appropriateness—framework, her accidental death (which seems to be intended as a de facto suicide) makes perfect sense. Dreyman, on the other hand, is relegated to listening to a kitschy composition called “Sonata for a Good Man” (written especially for the movie by Gabriel Yared) and ruminating on the innate goodness of most men, among other platitudes.
Given the runaway success of The Lives of Others (even commended by Christa Wolf herself), it’s possible to wonder if movie audiences really have a desire to come to terms with the unsettling recent past. Part of the problem is that filmgoers attend well-meaning political movies to experience an odd sort of moral absolution. Populists might cavil that it’s salutary that these films, however compromised, at least educate a largely clueless public. But, interestingly enough, a recent film made by a director who is nothing if not a populist, Paul Verhoeven’s Black Book—in which, incidentally, Sebastian Koch delivers a winning performance as a surprisingly benign Nazi—offers a much more profound view of political and human culpability. Maybe it takes a vulgarian to explode the pieties of good taste and illuminate bitter historical truths.