THE LIVES OF OTHERS (Foreign Film: Second Journey)

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.

FOOT SOLDIERS, PART TWO (And Then There Was Hollywood: Second Rumination)

Three films:

The Longest Day (Daryl Zanuck, Ken Annakin, Bernhard Wiki, Andrew Marton, 1962)

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Zulu (Cy Endfield, 1964)

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Gettysburg (Ron Maxwell, 1993)

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One theme:

“Tich ‘as ‘ed it! Fook me!” His face was purple, running sweat. “That shows ye w’at air strikes an’ tanks is woorth! Fookin’ ‘ell!”
“Will we go in again?”
“We’ll fookin’ have to!”

(George MacDonald Fraser, recounting a conversation with his Border Regiment’s old hand, Grandarse, during the Battle of Meiktila, fought between the British and the Japanese in Burma, 1945. From Quartered Safe Out Here, 1992)

I hope to be reviewing Fraser’s book soon. That will give me an excuse to look up his quote about the value of “special forces.” For now, suffice it to say Fraser and his mate were hardly alone in their disdain. Infantrymen who have served in combat tend to have a jaundiced view of the things which most impress their betters.

That’s because, from the dawn of warfare until yesterday, war only had a very limited set of real meanings.

Take the ground.

Hold the ground you’ve taken.

Don’t give up the ground somebody else is trying to take.

Until yesterday, war’s hard rules–and history’s–were well and universally understood.

Don’t lose.

If you lose, expect to bear the consequences.

When the men with the hardware meet the men with the belief, the men with the belief will end up owning the hardware.

These meanings, and yes, one might call them rules, were best and most clearly understood by those who were asked to do the hardest, dirtiest work–and the overwhelming majority of the killing and dying.

They were called various things in various languages at various times and places. All of which boiled down to a simple concept: Foot soldiers.

Important battles–or portions thereof–have been fought throughout history on horseback, at sea, in the air.

Every existential battle has come down to foot soldiers. You can win an important, history changing battle at sea (see the English defeat of the Spanish Armada for a prime example). But to take and hold ground–the final essence of war–you have to put boots on it. And those boots have to stay put.

The English could have lost to the Spanish Armada (or at Trafalgar, more than two hundred years later, or the Battle of Britain, fought in the air over a century after that) and still not lost.

You only really lose, existentially, when your foot soldiers lose.

Now, this foot-soldiers-holding-or-taking-ground seems like an inherently dramatic situation, the telling of which would lend itself most readily to film, the most visceral story-telling medium. And so it does. That being the case, there are surprisingly few movies devoted to straightforward depictions of foot soldiers doing their dirtiest work.

A lot of movies have battle scenes, and these battle scenes are often riveting. They frequently form some important role in a larger story. Saving Private Ryan (Steven Spielberg, 1998), ostensibly about the same subject as The Longest Day, has a memorably harrowing opening sequence devoted to taking the Normandy beaches. After which, in typical fashion, it spends an additional two hours being about something else, namely saving Private Ryan. Such sequences are highlighted in almost any film that concerns itself with war.

But I only know a relative handful of such films where the clash of foot soldiers is the primary focus.

Of those, I only know three really good ones.

I don’t think any of them reach the last level of greatness–no one’s going to mistake them for Citizen Kane or The Searchers or even Paths of Glory (another film where foot soldiers figure prominently but the actual fighting is not quite the point). But they’re the best we have, in the English language anyway. And they have lessons within them that we have spent the last half-century forgetting.

We have convinced ourselves that no powerful army will ever again be in striking distance of our own national capital…or the capital of any valuable ally. We have convinced ourselves that we will never again have to throw the full weight of our own mighty army onto the outer edges of a foreign continent and fight for every inch of ground just to get a foothold. We’ve even convinced ourselves that the defense of an empire’s lonely outposts (and God knows we have more of those than any empire which has preceded us) will never come down to hard fighting against overwhelming odds.

We have convinced ourselves that any victory worth having can be won by special forces and air strikes and, at a stretch, tanks.

We have entered a safe zone where none of this….

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or this…

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or certainly this…

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will again be necessary.

These are now ancient anachronisms. Not useful to our enlightened age, never mind that our age and our “enlightenment” were built upon ten thousand years worth of such.

And it’s true that even the most improbable victories do not necessarily bear final fruit.

More or less faithfully depicted in Zulu, the stand a hundred and fifty British regulars made at Rorke’s Drift in present day South Africa, on January 22-23 of 1879, against four thousand Zulus whose fellow tribesman had wiped out a command ten times larger at Islandlwana literally hours before, kept the earlier battle from being counted a disaster on the order of Custer’s Last Stand, fought with similar odds to those faced at Rorke’s Drift, three years earlier, half way around the world. It greatly enhanced the British army’s ability to quickly and efficiently mount a re-invasion of the Zulu Kingdom (the attacks on Islandlwana and Rorke’s Drift were a response to the first invasion). And it gave the Brits a stirring mythology (the best “myths” are always the ones based in hard truth) that may well have served to stiffen more than a spine or two in the dark days awaiting in the century ahead.

Still, in the long run, the victory at Rorke’s Drift meant no more strategically than the defeat at Little Big Horn. We’re still in charge of the lands where the Sioux and Cheyenne once roamed. The Brits are long gone from South Africa.

Which ought to give us a clue about our tendency to continually poke hornets’ nests and be forever surprised when we are stung and stung and stung again.

In case that doesn’t happen–in case we insist on both fighting “wars” and not winning them–there are other lessons to be learned from the films that give us the most realistic glimpse of what the dirtiest work of not just empire, but civilization, looks and feels like.

One of the lessons is civilization’s fragility–the nearness of Chaos and its attendant darkness. Cast aside Rorke’s Drift, with its junior commanders (played by Stanley Baker and Michael Caine), the senior of the two an engineer, who had seen no action previously and would never again distinguish themselves in battle or anywhere else, if you want to.

But we’ll do well to ponder Joshua Chamberlain  (Jeff Daniels in Gettysburg) holding the far flank at Little Round Top after having been told that retreat was not an option, or a crippled Teddy Roosevelt, Jr. (Henry Fonda in The Longest Day), landing on the wrong Normandy beach and deciding “We’ll start the war from here.”

They and their men, and thousands of others doing equally dangerous and difficult things around them, turned tides that might well have swept over western civilization had they given way. And none of those men sprang from a vacuum. Certainly none sprang from the kind of vacuum we have created for ourselves now, when military units are valued, if at all, more for their all-well-and-good-if-they-work social laboratory aspects than their ability to do the elementary things every single empire before us has forgotten at its peril when the weight of battle turned their laboratories back into yet another real war zone, where chariots or tanks or social experiments were never enough by themselves.

What elementary things?

Once more with feeling….

Take and hold ground. Whatever ground Fate and the moment have deemed vital to personal, national, civilizational, survival.

Believe that the effort was worth something.

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zulu4 longestday6It’s possible we won’t need to remember the basics, of course.

There’s always the chance that the hard and fast rules of human history and human nature really were made for others.

But if I could lay odds on the future I won’t live to see, I know which way I’d bet.