The Lives of Others (2006)
D. Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
The Lives of Others is superbly made. The acting, direction, cinematography and score are uniformly excellent and distinctive.
But the real star is the East German police state it depicts.
East Germany’s Stasi was notorious even in the context of Iron Curtain communism. It was the Secret Police force’s Secret Police force, the one with the reputation for maximum Germanic efficiency and cruelty. This movie gives it its due….and also shows how impossible it is to snuff the last tiny spark of whatever it is inside us that yearns to breathe free without literally killing everyone.
That may be why Utopian revolutions (see France, Russia, China, et al) tend to start with a mountain of corpses. But The Lives of Others doesn’t concern itself–or us–with that. It wants to show us how the control mechanisms work once they are fully established.
And to show us, also, how, in the end, even the most efficient and systemic forms of repression depend on humans acting ever and always as robots.
It’s that “ever and always” aspect that creates the intense drama here.
The movie begins by showing us the coldest, blandest, most devoted apparatchik imaginable (Ulrich Mühe ‘s Hauptmann Gerd Weisler). His face is a benign mask. His expressions hardly change a hair throughout the movie, whether he’s interviewing the latest suspect inside the gray, standard issue Police State walls that are hardly distinguishable from the air, sucking up to his chain of bosses, or lecturing his students on the necessities of his and their dedication to the preservation of the Paradise in which they live and breathe something purer than mere Freedom.
He’s a man who can’t be turned.
The Lives of Others hangs on whether such a man can be turned. The fate of everyone else–those above as much as below–depends on whether he’ll be true to the State or become swayed by his exposure to Life.
This Life takes two forms: The Art represented by the people Weisler has been set upon (a playwright and his leading lady mistress, who is also the mistress of Weisler’s boss’s boss), and the Love represented by the woman herself. Life plants a seed of doubt that blooms into resistance once Weisler becomes aware of his boss’s boss’s less than pure motivations for spying on a romantic rival, then turns into existential Doubt, when the rival turns out to be worthy of the State’s paranoia only because he’s fed up with the way his mistress is being treated.
The miracle of Mühe ‘s performance is that, through all these stages, the mask never slips, not even (crucially) in the aftermath, when he is presumably free of the State except for the mark it left on a soul that was born to be marked. We begin by fearing for his subjects and end fearing for him, never more so than when he is (presumably) no longer in physical danger. He gains dimension even as the playwright and his lover are being flattened out by the paranoia that is bound to be engendered by the State he serves.
The movie handles all this adroitly and delivers a balanced sense of absurdism and tragedy.
But it falls a bit short of greatness, I think, because, strangely, it has no politics.
The collapse of Soviet communism is presented as something either inevitable (because a heart beat remained detectable in just enough human breasts like Weisler’s to make it so) or a Miracle on the order of Divine Intervention delivered by Mikhail Gorbachev. I suppose one could read it as suggesting that, where there are enough Weislers, forever proving themselves not quite immune to some purpose which the State cannot, in the final measure, define or control, some form of glasnost will always be waiting around the corner–even, given the film’s mid-eighties setting, that the darkest hour really is just before dawn.
But, at least as it’s presented here, that’s not politics. It’s faith. And I didn’t get the sense that anyone involved would admit as much in open court (or an interview with a film magazine), so it’s that curious kind of faith which tends to emanate from the faithless just after they’ve yet again claimed some New Testament concept (like liberty or free will or egalitarianism) for themselves.
Meaning it’s really not politics.
Add that–or subtract hope–and this would be a film on the order of Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (which devastates because it lacks hope and is therefore an honest portrayal of faith’s absence or, if you prefer, helplessness, in the face of human evil’s eternal banality). As it is, I could watch this again tomorrow. As journeys inside a Police State go, it’s a hell of an entertainment, just the sort of thing that makes the nonbelievers think they’ve been in the presence of some higher power (call it Art).
Paths of Glory I may never watch again.
I don’t blame the film’s creative team for not wishing to make a film no one would want to see twice the way I’ll want to see this one twice.
But I can’t help thinking that a journey to Hell should leave a mark that won’t wash off on those of us who were born to be marked.