Saturday, October 27, 2007

Eavesdropping


In The Lives of Others (which I finally saw for a second time, now on DVD), Ulrich Muhe is reminiscent of Ben Kingsley at his unblinkingly spookiest. As Hauptmann Wiesler, a 1980s-era East German Stasi officer with an array of talents ranging from surveillance to 48-hour interrogations, Muhe's performance is largely silent, relying on a series of reaction shots that function almost as plot-markers that chart his character's arc from predatory party-liner to subversive sympathizer.

This transformation occurs when Wiesler is ordered to spy on Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch), a successful playwright and his actress girlfriend Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck), and it's hard to pinpoint the precise moment of change. Like a sonata that functions both metaphorically and as a plot device throughout the film (and Gabriel Yared's music is indispensible), The Lives of Others builds organically, with the motivations of its characters compiling like musical notes--some ultimately discordant, others merging in unexpected harmony. Suffice to say that both Wiesler and Dreymann take action against the G.D.R. only after the figure-heads of the State start meddling with their lives. Although the characters never formally meet, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck is adroit enough of a writer-director to convey, through both words and images, how the destines of the two become permanently entwined.

There is much that I love about The Lives of Others, which blends the best qualities of European cinema with an Americanized accessibilty (and features a scene in an archives that the SAA should use as a public relations tool on the importance of professional record-keepers). Yet for all of von Donnersmarck's skill, I could see on a second viewing that the movie absolutely would not work with the wrong actor--a scenery-chewer like Kingsley would have pushed his effects too hard instead of receding into the background as Muhe does, letting us gradually warm to him. I respect Scott Foundas's willingness to write an almost lone-dissenting review, but I don't see how he can accuse a movie of claiming that the Stasi were "just following orders" when the turns of the plot derive so clearly from the personal motives of its characters. Any film, much less one set at the last pinnacle of the Cold War, that is about the transformative power of art (in music, through the stage, on the page)--that believes bad people capable of good deeds--runs the risk of appearing cloying or unconvincingly sentimental. But through that fixed stare, right up to his deeply generous final scene, Muhe makes you believe.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

The lives of Others was very well done and
encouraging that one Stasi where hundreds
of thousands are employed step up to the plate
to protect some people who were being treated
unfairly. Being in the business of saving lives
where there is one who will break rank for justice
there are others who will do the same with a
little prodding.

Father Steve

Craig said...

Thank you, Padre. I agree that the movie does show that one man can make a difference, with as little sentimentality as possible.

Helen said...

Craig,
Thank you for writing about this movie, I've been wanting to see it again too, partially because I just miss it and partly because of Ulrich Muhe's untimely death this past summer. I agree completely that his presence is what really makes this movie.

The comment I want to add is that I think the main theme here is broader than the transformative power of art, I think it's also about the persistence or the perseverance of art, the fact that art is an integral part of the human psyche and experience and that oppressive regimes haven't been able to control or erase all of it from their cultures. A lot of individual writers' or actors' lives can be tragically destroyed by the State but theater still survives. Music and literature remain, they survive, so they're there to help Wiesler remember other values, values that were not part of his Stasi spy training.

Craig said...

Helen,

You make a good point about the theme of art. And Omar would go even further (I guess I'll have to speak for him, since he's too shy) and say that the idea of kultur as conveyed in this movie is a distinctly German theme. It makes me wonder if we're supposed to think of it as something completely new to Wiesler or something that he had experienced long ago and had now regained it?