Feb 13, 2007

The Lives of Others

I congratulate myself on not having read Anthony Lane's unforgiveably garrolous review of the German movie The Lives of Others, because if had, there would have been no need to stand in the infernal lines at the Angelika and watch the film. Mr. Lane manages to tell us the entire movie, and successfully excises the considerable suspense of the film. If you want to see the film, do not read that review. You have been warned. I think Lane is losing it lately:
If there is any justice, this year's Academy Award for best foreign-language film will go to "The Lives of Others" a movie about a world in which there is no justice.
I disagree. If there is any justice, which in the case of the Oscars the answer is always nisht, the award will go to the Moroccan war movie Indigenes, horridly translated as "Days of Glory", also about a world in which there is no justice. And if Pan's Labrynth wins, which will most likely be the case, then guess what? Apparently there is no justice in the world. Who knew?

The Lives of Others is a wonderfully taut film for about 3/4ths of its length. It is fascinating, gripping, compelling and extraordinarily acted, particularly by its very reluctant hero, the amazing Ulrich Muhe. This man deserves many, many acting prizes. The movie is worth seeing for his performance alone.
But there was something about the plot that I found rather contrived. I found the film to be rather obvious in its symbolism and I found that its didactic, albeit noble, purpose, detracted in the end from the horrifying truth it portrays of East Germany under the Stasi.
Eastern European communism was a hellish enterprise in every country it managed to rot, but leave it to the Germans to keep secret, surely extraordinarily meticulous, files for almost every citizen. They had invented a more outlandish system of humiliation and depersonalization only some years before, and now Communism afforded them to continue their sinister work. It may not have been that diabolical and bloody and over the top, but it was equally heartless and cruel. Now, they turned it against their own citizens, for which I must confess a delicious frisson of schadenfraude. So sue me.
After you watch this movie, you wonder if there is a part of the German psyche that enjoys living in hell.
What I liked about the movie is how well it handled the suspense that comes from the audience knowing something the characters don't. And how powerfully it recreates the atmosphere of daily dread in such a repressed country. The movie sustains the complex plot twists with assured elegance. It's only at the end, where they keep saying "one year later", "three years later", etc, that I thought it lost its structural cool. It became a little schmaltzy fantasy about the Good German who did the right thing. Still, it is a movie to be seen, just try to not know everything about it beforehand. If you survive the satanic disorganization that is the Angelika, you will feel doubly rewarded.

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