Sunday, September 23, 2007

Das Leben der Anderen

Last night I finally got a chance to see Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's widely-discussed debut film The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen). It was an absolute pleasure - in part because of the director's obvious skill (difficult to believe he's a rookie), in part because of the beauty of the music composed for the film, and in absolute-largest-part because Ulrich Mühe plays the lead role so effectively it has to be seen to be believed.

It's a tricky role to play. Indeed, most of the criticism of the film centers around how implausible the character supposedly is. A Stasi man who grows a conscience from exposure to art? Can't be!

And well maybe it can't. Certainly there's no evidence it ever happened in reality. One ironic hurdle the filmmakers famously faced was that the administrator of the museum built out of the Stasi prison in which they wanted to stage the opening scene wouldn't let them film on the premises because - in his words - "...that is exactly the difference. There was a Schindler. There was no Wiesler." He objected to the idea of a Stasi operative being the hero.

History aside, it remains an interesting character study. As fiction, I found Wiesler's transformation quite plausible. Perhaps not the totality of it. And certainly I agree with Jan Stewart that the movie "sabotages its best efforts with a sentimental payoff." Meaning that I disagree withthe extent to which mere exposure to art is meant to account for Wiesler's transformation. But the idea itself works well - for this character in this situation, anyway. Wiesler is a puritan. He's a true believer in the Party - of the kind that definitely did exist in the DDR. It isn't at all surprising that someone of his personality would be in the position he's in: he's loyal, but you sense that his loyalty has more to do with his social ineptitude than with real (rather - "independent") conviction. Wiesler's the kind of guy who's never been the hit at any party, and such people often throw themselves into their work and their personal causes. In a Catholic country he would have been a priest - not because he felt strongly "called" by God, but just because that's the ambient belief system, and that's what's available to him to fill the void in his life absent the love affairs he's never going to have. It makes sense that such a person ranks high enough in the Stasi to get the good assignments, but never so high that he's let into the inner circle. And it further makes sense that such a person - who has devoted his life to the Party because he lacks the zest to come up with his own causes and isn't interesting enough to be allowed to mate - should feel betrayed when confronted with the extent of the Party's corruption in the form of Minister Hempf. Indeed, most critics seem to have underestimated the complexity of his motives. It isn't just that Hempf is corrupt, or it isn't just that he's also attracted to Chrita-Maria, or it isn't just that he reads Dreymann's Brecht book. It's all of these things together - and the director, and the actor, do a skillful job at understating these things, but leaving them plainly evident all the same.

What is it that leads Wiesler to recommend that Dreymann be watched? It isn't entirely clear - but the reason he gives is revealing. Because Dreymann is "exactly the kind of arrogant guy I've warned my students to be on the lookout for." That's all. Dreymann is confident - he enjoys his life, likes himself, and has a beautiful girlfriend. Wiesler is the prototypical Socialist here: his motivations are mostly of that strange shade of envy tangled with and expressed through social conviction. Like many people who believe in imposing equality from above - Wiesler has the beliefs he does because he is a mediocrity. He will never be a shining star - and that's a fault of who he is. The only way to make it better is to go back to the playground rules, where "fairness" (narrowly defined) was enforced and everyone had to share. Wiesler is letting slip here that his real fight isn't for equality, it's against "arrogance." And I believe him.

This doesn't make Wiesler a bad seed. That his beliefs are born in envy does not mean that they are not well-intentioned in some sense, or that they are insincere. Indeed, Wiesler is completely sincere - and that's what makes his character interesting and instructive. I spend a great deal of time thinking about why Socialism remains attractive to so many people after a century's worth failure in the face of honest effort to make it work - and this is what I keep coming back to: that there are plenty of people just like Wiesler in the world. They want their share of time in the sun. They don't ask much - just to play with the big kids now and then. And because they're not asking much, what they want seems fair. And it is fair in some cosmic sense. But the world doesn't work that way. Justice doesn't work that way. It isn't the cosmic sense that counts, unfortunately for people like Wiesler. Justice is more detached; it's the day-to-day administration of it that counts; people remain ultimately responsible for making their own lives and finding their own success.

Wiesler's concept of where enemnity to the regime starts is correct: it comes from people who are successful because of who they are and unapologetic about it. Dreymann is the enemy of his system. And so his instincts are not wrong.

But as stated, Wiesler is not a bad guy. He's fair in the sense that he plays according to the same restrictions he wants imposed on others. He follows the Golden Rule. Fittingly, therefore, it isn't Dreymann - the target of his surveillance - who shakes his faith in the system. Dreymann is only under suspicion. It's Hempf - the corrupt party official using Wiesler to get David out of the way so he can take Bathsheeba - that undoes him. And that works for me too.

Consider Wiesler's position. He's a mediocrity in both senses. In the first sense: he lacks the charisma to shine, and he lacks the raw ability to accomplish anything meaningful on his own. In the second sense: he is also constrained by good upbringing. He cannot simply take what he wants from life either. He needs something from outside himself to give him meaning (or at least something to do), and being a basically decent person, he offers the only thing he has to give in return: his stellar work ethic. Wiesler is fair: he can forgive Dreymann for being "arrogant" once he knows that Dreymann is working for the system too. Dreymann does his part - maybe not with the attitude that Wiesler likes, but he plays the role that the Wieslers of the world need him to play to maintain their illusion of usefulness. Hempf does not. Hempf has nothing useful to contribute, and yet he takes what he wants from life anyway. Wiesler envies Dreymann, true, but he's a humble man on the whole. Hempf, however, betrayed him. He takes sides appropriately.

But this isn't the whole of the story - again, appropriately. Confrontation with Hempf's corruption alone wouldn't be enough to shake Wiesler out of his routine. After all, it's hugely implausible that Wiesler has survived into his 40s (we're told he's 20 years away from pension) in the DDR without noticing abuses of power. So why does this case break open the dam? That's where the exposure to art comes in - and, yes, where attraction to Christa-Maria comes in too. We only have to suspend our disbelief a little to buy that Wiesler has never really appreciated art until now - when he's hearing artists talk about it through his surveillance devices. Granted, it's a bit sentimental (especially that awful scene where Dreymann plays the "Sonata to a Good Person" - a genuinely moving piece of music, mercifully - and then comments that no one can really listen to it and remain bad. This is supposed to have brought Wiesler face-to-face with his inner good nature? UGH.) - but insofar as I can read the movie in such a way that it isn't Wiesler's only or even primary motivation, I buy it all the same. And in fact, I buy it in part because I can honestly believe that Wiesler is so devoted to his job that he has never really sat down and tried to appreciate good music or poetry before. No one in the school system in a socialist country bothered to tell him he had an inner life - and where else is a guy like Wiesler going to find that out? Indeed, only if someone forces him to sit down for a long time listening to good art - like, say, if he's confined to an attic for 12 hours at a time spying on artists. Or if, for the first time in his life, he is attracted to a woman (Christa-Maria - note the oh-so-clever name) for who she is.

A final motivation for his transformation that's overlooked by all critics I've read so far, but was very real for me, is the "just because" factor. Why now? Just because he's bored, probably. By coincidence, I ran across a similar-ish kind of episode from Noam Chomsky's life this weekend. I hate Chomsky's political commentary (I also, as it happens, hate his actual opinions) for three main reasons: (1) (most important) because he's dishonest. Rather than presenting the issues on which he comments, he selects the details most likely to bolster his conclusions and omits lots of other relevant facts. (2) He is unreasonable in his opposition to the United States. It's inconsistent for someone who claims to be against national power of all kinds, and he takes it to such an extreme that you have to wonder whether he got raped by American soldiers as a schoolboy or something. (3) It's 100% criticism and 0% constructive suggestions. Well, the incident in question concerns number (2). Chomsky frequently goes to Canada, where he is naturally a welcome guest so long as he's slagging on the US, which he's usually happy to do. But of course, even to the degree to which Chomsky hates the US, his primary motive really is more global: it isn't useful to him to bring down the US if it's just going to be replaced by more of the same. If this is true, it should irritate him to some degree to be used as a legitimizing force for anti-American echo chambers of people unwilling to turn the same kind of social criticism against their own nations. And at least one incident in his life confirms that it's true. Apparently in 1990 Chomsky appeared on a CBC commentary show of some kind and - in his own words:

In fact, you may recall the one occasion when I got sort of bored with going to Canada and criticizing the U.S., so I decided to talk about Canada. It was a radio program I'd been invited to appear on plenty of times; everyone had been quite happy to have me come and tell them how terrible the United States [is]; they'd all smiled ... As I say, I got sick of it at one point. I'd done a little background work, and I talked about Canadian hypocrisy ...

Telling, I think. He "got bored." He "got sick of it." Normally he's happy to slag away at the US - but that's only an incidental goal - not the primary one. Well, I think it's plausible that Wiesler, just like Chomsky, simply has enough of it one day. His primary goal is building a Socialist state. Supporting the DDR is something he's normally happy to do - because it mostly accomplishes his goal. But it isn't exactly the same thing as his goal, and so it's plausible to me that he just "gets bored" one day. The same way that Chomsky once got a wild hair and just decided - completely improbably, but there you have it - that that particular day on the radio show in Canada wasn't a good day for America-bashing. Chomsky's real concern (who knew?) is actually with global social justice - though it's usually hard to see that given the excessive amount of animosity he levels at the US in his diatribes. And Wiesler's real concern is actually with building a socialist state - though it's usually hard to see that given his excessive loyalty to the particular regime he serves. Why can't he just "get bored" one day like Chomsky did?

And so, contrary to most of the criticism I've read, I buy the character of Wiesler and his transformation - for exactly the reasons outlined in the movie. The movie did an excellent job here.

I should stress, though, that I only buy this as fiction. In reality, of course, no such thing was possible in the DDR - which is why there is no record of it ever having happened. In real life, Stasi agents themselves were never unsupervised; people like Wiesler just didn't get to sit in attics alone leaving out the bits they didn't want to report.

I should also stress - more damningly - that while I buy Wiesler's character and transformation, I find Dreymann completely implausible, which was majorly distracting. Dreymann is a bourgeois artist. He lives in a nice apartment, wears nice clothes, and has apparently never had to sell his soul to reach his position. He's not at all the kind of person I associate with successful artists in the DDR. And the mental tightrope he walks between his inappropriately-silenced friends on the one hand and loyalty to the regime on the other ... well, it just can't be - certainly not at this late date. There is simply no way Dreymann's 40, has watched regime-loyal friends being hung out to dry over trivialities, and remains completely sincere in his devotion to the DDR. The only reason I don't mind (enough to keep watching, anyway) is because I recognize that he's a plot device. The story is about Wiesler, not Dreymann. Dreymann is a prop.

My other bone to pick with critics' opinions I've read really only applies to one of them: John Podhoretz in this piece. Podhoretz likes the movie in part because he sees it as an all-too-rare example of a movie critical of Socialism:

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.

Well, yes and no. I agree with Podhoretz to the extent that this is a movie critical of an East Bloc regime, and that there aren't nearly enough of those going around. I'm not sure it's really critical of Socialism itself, though.

Quite the contrary, in fact. Despite all the claptrap about how this is the first truly critical Ostalgie film - I actually think it's a pretty normal example of the genre in a lot of ways.

Consider. First, our hero is very much an everyman - content to be a cog in the system so long as nothing goes terribly wrong with it. Just like Alexander in Goodbye, Lenin! in a lot of ways. True, Alex isn't the gray apparatchik that Wiesler is, but they're both remarkable for being unremarkable DDR citizens. And then, I can't help but think of Alex's words at the close of Goodbye, Lenin! - to the effect that the illusions he was creating for his mother were not the DDR as it really was, but the DDR he would have wanted. And again, one can't help but get that feeling from Wiesler and Dreymann too. They both believe in the regime - not as it is, but as it might have been. The events of the film force them to reexamine their acceptance of the country they live in, but you never have the impression that either Wiesler or Dreymann repent of their socialism. Like every other Ostalgie film, a plausible viewing of Das Leben der Anderen is the normal tripe about how "Communism would have been great, if only we hadn't been betrayed by those damn corrupt party bosses." After all, it's reading Brecht, the posterchild DDR writer, that lets Wiesler know he has a soul. And the thrust of Dreymann's argument that the ban on his friend's work is wrong isn't that the state should be stifling individual expression. He agrees with that, as far as it goes. The objection is that Jerska is a good socialist too, and only therefore undeserving of his treatment. Fine by him if Hauser, a real critic of the regime, is forbidden from leaving the country. One can't help but get the impression that if things were left up to Wiesler and Dreymann, life in the DDR would have been great.

The main difference between this and classical Ostalgie, really, is in the atmosphere. Unlike the other films, this one tries hard to give you a sense of how tense and quiet everything was. And to that extent, it succeeds. Though I was never in East Germany, I was in what used to be East Berlin in 1994, and I remember this atmosphere well. At that time, the city looked more or less as it had done. Things were empty and ruined, and there was an oppressive tense QUIET over everything - especially if you went off the main streets. As though people were still afraid of being overheard. The empty, shabby bar Wiesler goes to after work very much reminds me of bars we visited in the East in 1994.

But that's all it can really say. In fact, aside from the attention to this one admittedly important detail, I have the impression that the other films are more accurate in their portrayal of life "back then." Dreyman, for example, wears implausibly good clothes, lives in an implausibly good apartment surrounded by items of implausible quality and friends who are implausibly confident (as he is) and implausibly outspoken in their criticism of the regime.

It is exactly the kind of movie a westerner with cliched ideas about Socialism would make about life in the East. The East is full of people just like us who think and act just like us and even live to roughly our standard of living - oh and by the way they're oppressed. Right.

So in sum, I think the fairest thing to say about this movie is that it's a "pretty thing." The directing is good, the acting is near-perfect, the original music is truly beautiful. The dialogue will do: occasional brilliance shines through here too. Despite what the critics say, Wiesler IS a believable character - if you can keep yourself from thinking too much about how disconnected the logistics of the plot are from actual historical reality, I mean. But of course, you can't, and that's the whole problem. A thousand nagging details conspire to ruin this film - and that's a real shame given the obvious level of talent involved.


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