Sunday, September 30, 2007

The Lives of Others

I must say, The Lives of Others is a tremendous mastery of craftsmanship, a full 3-course meal, satisfying on all levels. Written and directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, it’s the story of Hauptmann Gerd Weisler (played by Ulrich Mühe who passed away last July, sadly). In 1984, Weisler was a rather scary Stasi Officer, a scary interrogator, a scary lecturer on the art of interrogations, and he’s also the dutiful, yet very scary, enforcer of the East German thought police. We hate him and he’s the protagonist, if you can believe that.

Weisler wants to (and he is also ordered to) eavesdrop on a renowned German playwright by the name of Georg Dreyman who is “devoted and loyal to the government.” I liked how Ebert wrote,

“How can that be? Wiesler wonders. Dreyman is good-looking, successful, with a beautiful lover; he must be getting away with something. Driven by suspicion, or perhaps by envy or simple curiosity, Wiesler has Dreyman's flat wired and begins an official eavesdropping inquiry. He doesn't find a shred of evidence that Dreyman is disloyal. Not even in whispers. Not even in guarded allusions. Not even during pillow talk. The man obviously believes in the East German version of socialism, and the implication is that not even the Stasi can believe that. They are looking for dissent and subversion because, in a way, they think a man like Dreyman should be guilty of them. Perhaps they do not believe in East Germany themselves, but have simply chosen to play for the winning team.”

We learn that all is not as it seems and this isn’t simply about Wiesler’s perverse suspicions. A government bigwig, Minister Hempf, has a thing for Dreyman’s girlfriend, Christa-Maria Sieland, who must at times comply with Hempf’s disgusting advances at the risk of imprisonment, banishment, or humiliation. Thus, Hempf wants dirt on his romantic rival. Wiesler’s boss, Colonel Grubitz, the closest thing Wiesler has to a “friend,” is happy to advance his own career by going along with the corrupt whims of Minister Hempf. And Wiesler is asked to lie, to behave falsely, to ruin a good man, in order to prove his own loyalty.

But we learn that even Weisler is not as he seems. He is only doing his duty because he has no other choice. How is a good man to act in an environment that squashes any possibility for moral behavior? Well, we learn through Weisler’s actions and the enormous decisions he makes throughout Act II that he is, in fact, a good man whose heart can be moved, and he is quite capable of making moral decisions that will have a lasting impact on the lives of all these characters, especially himself. We first hate him, then we’re intrigued and fascinated by him, and in the end we admire him for what he did. Is there anything wrong with this approach in the protag’s arc? Not one damn bit. And yet, the gurus and pro readers and men like Robert McKee drill into screenwriters that all protagonists must be sympathetic and/or empathetic from the very beginning. No, they don’t. Weisler earned our love and sympathy in the end and isn’t that when it really counts?

By the way, I loved what A.O. Scott wrote:

“It is not inaccurate to describe ‘The Lives of Others’ as the story of how both men become disillusioned and hasten each other’s disillusionment. But the paradoxes inherent in this story — which are central to Mr. von Donnersmarck’s brilliant exposition of the Orwellian logic of East German Communism — are worth pausing over. It is not simply that Wiesler, the state-sanctioned, clandestine predator, develops a measure of sympathy for his quarry as he listens in on Georg’s private, unguarded moments (“presumably they have intercourse,” he types in his daily report after eavesdropping on Georg’s birthday party). Surely his training would have inoculated him against this kind of reverse Stockholm syndrome.

“Rather, even as Georg is driven toward actions that implicate him, for the first time, in dissident activity, Wiesler becomes convinced of Georg’s essential innocence and takes steps to protect him. The plot, as it acquires the breathless momentum of a thriller, also takes on the outlines of a dark joke. The poet and the secret policeman — both writers, in their differing fashions — may be the only two true patriots in the whole G.D.R.; in other words, the only people who take the Republic’s stated ideals at face value. But since the nation itself functions by means of the wholesale and systematic betrayal of those ideals, the only way Wiesler and Georg can express their loyalty is by committing treason.”


Christina said...

I can't believe I missed this one in the theater. I'll have to get the DVD.

Mystery Man said...

Hey Christina, how are ya? Great to hear from you.

It's German with subtitles. Should've mentioned that. I've seen it twice now. Let me tell you, all things considered, right down the line - everything works. It's a plot sprung out of the inner needs of all the characters who are each distinctly different. The conflict and tension consistently escalates. The dialogue was rarely "on-the-nose" - full of subtext, lies, deception, half-truths, and manipulation. The scenes were short, dialogue brief but always potent. I loved the setup and double payoff of the music sheet - "Sonata for a Good Man," but I won't reveal how it plays out. There's a wonderful scene with Weisler on an elevator with a child who asks him if he's one of those bad Stasi Officers, because his father says they send people to prison. Weisler looks at him and just apathetically asks him the name of his... but then he thinks a moment. The child asks, "For what?" "What's the name of your ball?" he responds. We know he's beginning to change. Just wonderful. It was genuinely moving at times.

Don't get me started.


Christina said...

I checked - the DVD is out, so I'll get it on my next visit to the video store.

My favorite movies of all time are European ones like Red (and everything else by Kiewslowski), The Conformist, Wings of Desire, A Heart in Winter, etc. This sounds like it's going to fit right in that group.

I also wanted to see (but missed) After the Wedding. Did you see?

Did you see Once? I was very impressed with that one.

Laura Deerfield said...

Ah, you've named a few of my own favorites there...

I remember hearing good things about this, though I honestly can't remember from whom!

Guess I'll have to add it to my Netflix... of course, with over 300 movies in my queue, it might be a minute before I get to it.

Mim said...

This sounds good. Another movie with a protagonist who starts off as unlikable and doesn't do anything that SHOULD endear you to her is The Opposite of Sex.

She treats the other characters like complete crap throughout and in the end, when they think she's dead, they all grieve for her.

I've heard good things about The Lives of Others. I'll have to rent it.

Unknown said...

I've been wanting to see this. It kind of plays into the script I'm currently working on. Well not really, other than it's set in the same place and time, but it would be nice to get a better feel for the way the east germans lived. I'm agreeing with Mim, that I really am starting to warm up to this concept of the initially unlikable protagonist (as long as there is a valid reason for their unlikability that they learn to overcome).

Ann said...

This sounds like a brilliant movie. I'll definitely rent it! That moment in the elevator sounds priceless, MM, and is just the sort of moment I look for in movies.

Two of my all time Euro favs are Wings of Desire (as Christina mentioned) and My Life As A Dog. Have you ever seen that one MM??

Anyway, my point. Ah yes. I had one! This sorta reminds me of the differences between the film and book versions of Schindler's List. In the movie, he was motivated by compassion for Jews, but in the book, he was motivated by his own selfish whims and love of head games.

Both ways, he became a hero -- albeit one way was accidental. Which was was more interesting? I'm sure you can guess what the answer to that is. Although I love Spielberg, this sounds like the movie Schindler's List should have been.

Oh, and in case you're wondering. Your word veri still hates me and makes me do it twice.

Mystery Man said...

Christina - I've seen all those except The Conformist and After the Wedding. I'll have to rent those. Loved all the others. OH - I'm DYING to see "Once," ever since I read Billy Mernit's write-up. It's killing me, really. I still need to seriously expand my knowledge of foreign films.

Laura - It's worth it, I promise. I wouldn't steer you wrong. Even my friend who is not writer couldn't help but comment on the "tremendous arc" of the protagonist.

Mim - Oh yeah! I was trying to think of other films that start off that way. Scrooge, of course. Perhaps Cast Away. Ummm...

Ann - Wings of Desire I've seen, but I missed "Life as a Dog." I'll have to move that up on my Netflix queue. Thanks for that. An EXCELLENT point about Schindler's List! I hadn't read the book. Veri may hate you but I certainly don't.


Rose said...

I've been to East Berlin. Cold, cold place.

Bob, if you want, you can email me via TS and I'll shoot you a story or two about a young American soldier's experiences one day in East Berlin.

'Twas an interesting day, complete with our wherabouts being reported on and being stuck at Checkpoint Charlie for at least an hour as the Stazzi took pictures of esch of us, boarded the tour bus we were on with BIG German shepards and did a fine tooth comd inspection of the undercarraige before we were permitted to leave East Berlin.

All this after meeting a frail old German woman who patted my (uniformed) arm, said "Amerikanish soldat, zehr gut." (American soldier, very good) and, before I cculd gather my wits enough to speak to her, vanished through the crowd. Back held ramrod straight, she never looked back at me.

Thank god,I was smart enough to not chase after her.

Christina said...

I forgot about My Life as a Dog. It's a classic -- I saw it 3 times in the theater when I was 18. Same year I saw Blue Velvet 3 times in the theater.

See Dog soon!! It'd make a great double feature with Once. As far as Once goes, you're gonna be writing a big long post about that one...