Monday, April 16, 2007

IN THE PAPERS / The Lives of Others - A chilly and controversial study of a Stasi snoop for James Christopher in The Times

The Lives of Others has caused the most delicious trouble since winning Best Foreign Language film at this year’s Oscars. Few critics expected this modest thriller about the East German Stasi to lift such a glamorous award.

No one anticipated the film’s extraordinary reach. Not least, the young — aged 34 — first-time director, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. His Oscar triumph should have earned him a firework display, a team of nubile cheerleaders and a nifty title (Count, perhaps) to add to his preposterous name.
But The Lives of Others has put the fear of God into the German cultural establishment. It rips the stitches from memories that are still fresh and deep.
The film opens in East Berlin, in a Stasi cell in the Hohenschönhausen detention centre in 1984. Captain Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe) tapes the interrogation of a hapless dissident for the benefit of his latest dull class of aspiring secret policemen. He is quite brilliant at his job. He is as dispassionate as Sherlock Holmes while crushing Watson, and as giving as a cement wall. The purity of Wiesler’s logic is actually hypnotic. There is a mad science about his methods that makes shocking playground sense.
The plot is as simple as an opera charge sheet. A plump and seedy minister for the arts falls for a famous actress with a drug habit. He orders his lieutenant to bug the flat she shares with her fashionable playwright boyfriend. Wiesler is duly charged to drag up the necessary dirt. Under “Operation Lazlo”, he litters their apartment with secret microphones and moves into the attic to spy on their every twitch.
Against every trained fibre of his highly tuned mind he starts falling in love with Martina Gedeck’s voluptuous actress, and sympathising with Sebastian Koch’s idealistic writer. The mission to nail this pair of errant artists turns into a desperate soap to save them.
This is where most East German survivors and commentators parted company with von Donnersmarck’s melodrama. The idea of a Stasi officer with the wit to dream up this kind of redeeming scenario is apparently beyond the pale. For my money it doesn’t lessen the power of the film one jot.
An alarming sense of guilt has been hoisted on to The Lives of Others. Almost because it touches truths that every other East German film in recent years has been desperate to avoid, or treats with rough-and-tumble irony. This has resulted in a slew of films called “Ostalgie” (a pun for which the literal meaning is “nostalgia for the East”).
What distinguishes von Donnersmarck is that he clearly has the courage of youth on his side. He remembers growing up in Berlin (though he is in fact from Cologne) with family on both sides of Checkpoint Charlie.
The provincial pluck of his script is the refusal to dilute the paranoia that he witnessed as a child crossing the border to visit relatives in the East. It’s a bravery singularly lacking in German directors who ought to know better.
The eerie pleasure of Mühe’s performance is how much we empathise with his drab and hollow spy. We are unwittingly captivated. The entire grubby history of Cold War surveillance is etched on his face. The eyes are ancient. The mouth is tight and unsmiling. The creases haven’t been oiled in decades. Wiesler’s most intimate moments are spent with his head mournfully buried between the breasts of a clock-watching prostitute.
Yet the taboo drama is how skilfully the film gets under his skin. He is a man whose entire life has been distilled into details: the endless typewritten reports; the “odour jars” used to capture a suspect’s scent; the metal steamers that can open 600 letters an hour; the warehouses full of well-thumbed files.
The disillusion is perfect when he discovers that Operation Lazlo is simply a means to satisfy a Central Committee member’s sexual urges.The plot chimes queasily with the broadsheet frenzy about our new surveillance society, and the ubiquitous evils of coast-to-coast CCTV.
What doesn’t ring entirely true is a Stasi officer who undergoes an angelic change of heart. This is a harsh leap, and arguments still rage about whether or not unsuspecting audiences should be allowed to take it. But the atmosphere of the film is exquisitely 1980s. The cruel backdrops are marvellous shades of grey. There is a bruising beauty about the relationship between Gedeck’s doomed actress and Koch’s unselfish writer. And a savage cynicism. Few films have dared paint East Germany and its legions of demons in such honest and unsparing detail. Von Donnersmarck puts a pickaxe into the past.

From The Times

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