March 12, 2007
A look at the film "The Lives of Others," directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck.
The pivotal scene in the magnificent new German movie The Lives of Others--which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film last week--takes place in an elevator. The year is 1984, and the occupant of the elevator is a severe and profoundly intelligent senior functionary of the East German security service named Wiesler. A stray word about the inhumanity of Stasi interrogations, or a joke about the dictator Erich Honecker, is all Wiesler needs to hear to make a simple mark on a piece of paper that will ruin someone's life.
A soccer ball rolls into the elevator, followed by a towheaded boy. The elevator begins to rise.
"Do you work for the Stasi?" the little boy asks.
"What do you know of the Stasi?" Wiesler says.
"My dad says you're a bad man who throws people in jail."
Wiesler's lips twitch slightly, and as is his habit, he asks the question intended to destroy the boy's happiness: "What is the name of--" The audience tenses, expecting the boy to answer with his father's name.
Then, unaccountably, Wiesler pauses before finishing his sentence: "--your ball. What is the name of your ball?"
The boy protests that his ball doesn't have a name. He looks oddly at Wiesler, not knowing that the Stasi man, who has spent decades destroying families without a second thought, has just spared him unimaginable pain.
The question is: Why has Wiesler spared him? That is the subject of The Lives of Others, an immensely rich and gripping film about the moral awakening of two men.
Wiesler is a classic figure of evil--a remorseless and relentless force with all the power of the totalitarian state behind him, dedicated to ferreting out any sign of free thinking among his East German countrymen. He finds his opposite in a naïf named Dreyman, a successful playwright who has made a decent life for himself by never challenging, never opposing, and never even thinking dark thoughts about the Communist tyranny that rules over him.
The lives of Wiesler and Dreyman intersect because of a woman--Christa-Maria, the nation's best-known stage actress and Dreyman's girlfriend. Wiesler is in attendance at the premiere of Dreyman's newest play, a ghastly blend of Brechtian pseudo-profundity and labored socialist realism. Dreyman is thought to be above suspicion (in part because he's friends with Erich Honecker's daughter). But when Wiesler catches a glimpse of the playwright embracing his lead actress, he says that Dreyman ought to be watched. It's not clear what it is about the two of them together that disturbs Wiesler--jealousy, perhaps--but his suggestion is eagerly embraced.
Wiesler has spent much of his career instructing Stasi trainees in interrogation techniques. As such, he has learned a good deal about human nature--for instance, that an innocent man accused of a crime will get angrier about the injustice being done to him over time while a man with something to hide will despair and cry. But it turns out there is something strangely unworldly about Wiesler. Unable to form normal human attachments, he lives alone, watches Stalinist propaganda on television in his spartan apartment, and calls in prostitutes to whom he clings desperately. It never occurs to him that his assignment might not be because ideological purity must be maintained on the East German stage. Rather, the minister of culture is besotted with Christa-Maria and wants to secure an advantage with her.
For his part, the playwright Dreyman has managed to navigate the treacherous shoals of working as an artist in a totalitarian society. He oversteps himself early on in the film, when he mentions that his former director has been "blacklisted" and is reprimanded for using the word by the minister of culture. Fear sparks behind his eyes. He has been provocative. He quickly tries to find another word, a safer word. But he, too, doesn't know that the minister is looking for anything he can use to press his advantage against Dreyman so he can control and dominate Christa the actress.
As Wiesler finds himself pulled--unwillingly--away from his narrow dogmatism into a state of vertiginous confusion, Dreyman's safe bubble starts to collapse around him as well. He feels himself being drawn into a dangerous form of social activism, and yet feels safe doing so because he can't imagine he is being watched 24 hours a day.
He is--by Wiesler.
It's hard to know where to begin in praising The Lives of Others, the first movie written and directed by a 33-year-old German with the traffic-stopping name of Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. The Lives of Others joins the Russian film Burnt by the Sun on a very short list of motion-picture masterpieces that portray the compromises a totalitarian state demands of those unfortunate enough to live inside a prison-country. And it joins Citizen Kane, no less, on the very short list of the most impressive debut films in the history of cinema.
Donnersmarck grew up in New York and West Berlin, and was all of 16 when the Wall came down. And yet what he has managed here is a fully conceived and realized portrait of life in the bleak, bleak East that is told with startling delicacy. We don't see truncheons beating people senseless, or prison camps, or men shot near Checkpoint Charlie. Donnersmarck conveys the horror of life in East Germany through the omnipresence of suspicion. No one can trust anyone else--friends, colleagues, lovers. Everyone is potentially compromised, and people possess what little they have on sufferance. The state giveth and the state taketh away.
Donnersmarck has said he got the idea for the movie while he was struggling to come up with a movie scenario for a class he was taking. As a piece of music played on his stereo, he recalled Maxim Gorky's story about Lenin listening to Beethoven's 'Appassionata.' As Gorky wrote:
"I know of nothing better than the Appassionata and could listen to it every day. What astonishing, superhuman music! It always makes me proud, perhaps naively so, to think that people can work such miracles!" Wrinkling up his eyes, Lenin smiled rather sadly, adding: "But I can't listen to music very often. It affects my nerves. I want to say sweet, silly things and pat the heads of people who, living in a filthy hell, can create such beauty. One can't pat anyone on the head nowadays, they might bite your hand off. They ought to be beaten on the head, beaten mercilessly, although ideally we are against doing any violence to people. Hm--what a hellishly difficult job!"
Donnersmarck told Alan Riding of the New York Times, "I suddenly had this image in my mind of a person sitting in a depressing room with earphones on his head and listening in to what he supposes is the enemy of the state and the enemy of his ideas, and what he is really hearing is beautiful music that touches him. I sat down and in a couple of hours had written the treatment."
That scene appears in The Lives of Others, and is limned with extraordinary stillness and compressed emotion by Ulrich Mühe, an actor heretofore unknown outside Germany who gives a performance so perfect in this, and every other moment in the film, that it's almost beyond words.
"People don't change," the minister of culture says to Dreyman at the beginning of the movie. The dramatic challenge Donnersmarck set for himself was to offer a portrait of the ways people do change even when they don't wish to change--even when it is literally life-threatening to change.
But even though The Lives of Others is set primarily in 1984, it's not 1984. This is not a morality play about East Germany, or a fictional catalogue of the horrors of life under communism. It's a character study in the guise of a stunning suspense thriller. When the rigorously correct Stasi man Wiesler begins to go off the reservation, it's impossible to determine his motivation and therefore impossible to know what he's going to do next, or why. As the playwright Dreyman begins to take creative and political risks for the first time in his life, his fate is entirely in Wiesler's hands--and like the culture minister who started the investigation, Wiesler is besotted by the playwright's beautiful and talented girlfriend.
Donnersmarck's work is so fresh and so original in part because he is working with a great, rich, infinitely absorbing subject--a subject other filmmakers across the world continue to avoid like the plague. This is strange. Life under communism would seem to be among the least controversial topics one could imagine. After all, who outside of Vladimir Putin's inner circle actually longs for a restoration of the Soviet Empire? But you can count on two hands and a foot the number of major motion pictures made since the dissolution of the Soviet Union that have attempted any kind of reckoning of the human cost of communism in the 20th century.
Among the cultural cognoscenti across the world, there seems to be a hunger to let this subject simply slide down the rabbit hole. Donnersmarck found it difficult to secure financing for The Lives of Others, which cost a negligible $2 million to make. And the organizers of the Berlin Film Festival refused to accept it as an official entry in 2006--a decision that, in sheer aesthetic terms, has to be reckoned among the most perverse I've ever heard about. Once released, it made a sensation in Germany and is among the most successful films ever released there. That's not surprising. There are few German films since the fall of the Weimar Republic that come anywhere near The Lives of Others.
So why was the thought of making the movie distasteful to people? And why did the pooh-bahs of Germany's most important film festival reject it?
We can only speculate about the answer. Donnersmarck believes it's because Germany has never really dealt with its Communist past--there was little effort made to bring East Germany's murderers and monsters to justice--and that, by making The Lives of Others, he had upset a cultural consensus to let the past lie.
I think there may be another reason for the reluctance of the makers of pop culture worldwide to reckon with communism, and that is shame. The ideological struggle against leftist totalitarianism was something that did not arouse the interest or enthusiasm of cultural elites in the West during the Cold War. Far from it; from the 1960s onward, the default position of the doyens of popular culture was a presumption in favor of the Communist struggle, as personified by Mao, the Viet Cong, Castro, the Sandinistas, El Salvador's guerrillas, and the so-called African liberation movements.
This was not a reasoned, or thought-through, view. It was little more than fashion. And rarely, if ever, has history rendered a more devastating verdict on the wrongheadedness of fashionable Western groupthink than it did when the walls and statues came down, and Lenin was removed from his unholy pedestal.
They got it wrong. And though they may not know it, they are ashamed of it and do not wish to be reminded of it. Perhaps that's why it took a 33-year-old to make this masterpiece--a 33-year-old who was too young during the Cold War to have joined any camp in any meaningful way. Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck found a great story to tell with a great setting and he told it with peerless skill while bearing none of the scars of past ideological battles.
Maybe he will be followed by other young filmmakers and writers who can bring fresh eyes and a new perspective to the great struggle of the second half of the 20th century.
John Podhoretz, a columnist for the New York Post, is THE WEEKLY STANDARD's movie critic.
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