Saturday, December 19, 2009

"The Lives of Others": A German peeping tom who isn't perverse.

"The Lives of Others," released in 2006, stole the best foreign film award from "Pan's Labyrinth." Actually, "stole" is wrong - it was "given" the award over "PL," because the Academy isn't nearly as hip as they try to seem.

This Summer, Ben Kingsley will listen to you screwing. "TLOO" is an excellent film. It's acted perfectly, featuring compelling characters, moments, and dialogue; it's beautifully shot, and has a real dearth of flaws. Nothing in this great human drama is diminished because it's in German, that unprettiest of languages. It just wasn't so amazing or so new that it beat Guillermo Del Toro's contribution to "perfect cinema;" nor was "TLoO" a more thoughtful film. I digress.

"The Lives of Others" is about the final spell in the Cold War, and it takes place in the hyper-absurd town of East Germany. An exemplary member of the Stasi is assigned to spy on an artistic couple - only because a superior wants the wife. Having bugged the place, he listens to the struggles, thoughts, and emotions of two people in love. Before long, this meticulous government stooge is captivated by what filters through his headset.

This fine picture is well worth watching. Many films center on one emotion, in relationships and life, as if one feeling predominates a whole experience. Yet here, there is truly effective humor - subtitles or not - even though laughter is hardly the flick's defining sentiment. A serious relationship, and the cascade of feelings involved, is handled deftly. Impressively, it approaches several serious topics without being ham-fisted, shrill, or excessively judgmental.

My favorite aspect is the apparent(?) lead: Wiesler, the Stasi spook. He's sort of a German Ben Kingsley, and he approaches this role with a commitment to being contained. This character, then, neatly matches the themes and style of "TLOO." Like the DDR, he's listening where he shouldn't - but he has compassion.
The government, sadly, never cared for its citizens. Mechanically, it trusted its bureaucrats to do their jobs. Wiesler is a cog in that machine, but he gets absorbed by the loyal, good-hearted lives of two comrades.

Still, I liked his part and his performance, and I loved seeing a carefully-played character that should be closely observed by the viewer. Too many - even big name, quality stars - are so unsubtle you could turn off the video and miss nothing... y'know, ACT-ING!

I'd also like to point out the lovely "1984" aspects on display. From the start, a voiceover informs us that the State knows "everything," and counts everything that occurs. Their OCD extends to the number of shoe purchases by each officer. These ridiculous facts play smoothly into the rest of the movie, which concerns the State learning the secrets of two citizens.

Everyone knows that German "Love Line" is the best of all

To the film's credit, it includes an emotional point as well: the State does not try to keep suicide-rate stats in their Soviet-controlled regime. Like in Orwell's novel, the State is obsessed with all information, unless it undermines them. Soon afterwards, government functionaries proclaim that anything outside "the party line" is a State threat.

It's small surprise that the State's unjust involvement and interference might destroy lives and faith alike. To some extent, the government is also a role in "The Lives of Others." It's vital at the beginning, and dead by the end. Like humankind, it's personality ranges from moral angels of wrath and protection, like Wiesler, to selfish monsters, like the man who started this mess.

Yes, in a nod to "Animal Farm," the only Party bigshot we ever meet is a pig. It's actually offensive to the animal, and I know apologize. This man, unlike the average pig: pressures women into sex; gets others to do everything for him; uses dire threats on anyone who doesn't gratify him. I like to think the actor eat badly for a month before filming... Yes, "the Orwell" is strong with this story.

What's bad here? There's a moment in the coda that is far too "liberal-intellectual," perhaps for the sake of being so. That moment features the spottiest acting of the whole piece (not from one of the leads). Also, there is very little surprise in the conclusion; for me, at least.

With that climax and its ending, "TLoO" may seem like an old story, well-told. It's very much of its intended time, tho - the events, the focus on the artists, the gluttony. The film can be quiet and well-paced enough to seem based on a play, not a book. It would be Brecht, or something, but it'd still be a play.

I was very happy with my rental. You should rent it too. In preferring this over "Pan's Labyrinth," the Academy showed how conservative & old-fashioned they are. It's why I haven't watched the Oscars - or had more than vague curiosity for the results - in years.

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