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.

THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC (Foreign Films: First Journey)

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)
D. Carl Th. Dreyer

(I had no existing category for this, so I’m creating a new one for Foreign Films….Hoping it will be an excuse to watch more of them!)

The Passion of Joan of Arc is a cinematic masterpiece with a hole in its head.

Its Danish director, Carl Th. Dreyer, is rightly hailed as a titan of form. His ability to create and sustain mood, especially through striking images (true cinema then) hasn’t been surpassed. This is the only film of his I’ve seen (there’s a box set sitting around that will allow me to correct that now that I’ve finally rewatched this one), but it’s enough to sustain a legacy. Likewise, Renee Falconetti’s performance in the lead role–mostly a series of agonizing closeups–deserves its legend.

Not, as it happens, as a portrait of Joan of Arc.

That doesn’t seem to be what Dreyer was after. What, exactly, he was after, is a bit vague, but my brief research confirms a suspicion: He prized technique as a means to an end, and the end was emotional resonance above all.

Including every other kind of sense.

On the surface, this Joan is as close to “realistic” as it’s possible to get in a drama. The sets and costumes effectively transport the viewer through time and space. Much of the script is taken directly from transcripts of her trial for heresy, for which she was ultimately condemned to be burned at the stake. The pedantry of the bureaucracy which judged her will be familiar to anyone who has ever taken on a government agency. And Dreyer’s technique serves the ends pursued–he portrays Joan as a hapless victim, a simple farm girl caught in a web of what we now call Kafkaesque evil from which there is no escape. In its single-minded pursuit of an emotional state–or, better yet, a state defined by one overriding emotion, fear–The Passion of Joan of Arc is never likely to be surpassed.

One wonders, though, just how lightly we can cast aside a historical figure’s essence and still acknowledge why we are interested in the first place?

I’m hardly one to cast aspersions on taking liberties with “facts” (which, in any case Passion does not do). I’d never recommend anyone take Hollywood’s views of Abraham Lincoln or Wyatt Earp (to name two subjects for John Ford, my favorite filmmaker), as historical gospel. But I never reach the end of Young Mr. Lincoln or My Darling Clementine with the feeling their subjects’ fundamental characters have been cast aside along with the usual historical details. The Lincoln who walks up the hill at the end of Young Mr. Lincoln (the film Sergei Eisenstein listed as the one he wished he had made, other than his own), is a man who has earned a march toward history. The Wyatt Earp who rides away at the end of Clementine, is a man who fully represents the fundamental social and spiritual isolation of the gunfighter.

The Joan of Arc who burns at the end of Passion (with Dreyer’s style and Falconetti’s performance allowing the viewer to burn with her–no small feat) is what she is in the first frame–a scared rabbit.

In this sense, focusing entirely on the trial seems to have been for the purpose of dramatic unity. It’s not a coda on great achievement, as Lincoln’s assassination–ritualized with unusual accuracy throughout Hollywood history, from The Birth of a Nation on down–invariably is, even in films that aren’t about Lincoln. It’s not a meeting with destiny. It’s a story unto itself.

If you entered it with no idea who Joan of Arc was, it would leave you baffled as to why anyone cared enough about her to burn her alive, let alone fight over her legacy.

Since when are epic heresy trials–designed to ensnare scared rabbits–the stuff of legend?

Well, since they involve Joan of Arc. That’s when.

So perhaps a little history is in order.

Jeanne d’Arc was born a French peasant in 1412, the darkest days of the Hundred Years War (which. to that point, had resulted in the English occupying much of France). She was given what amounted to a military commission in the French army in 1429, when she was seventeen. Sent to the besieged city of Orleans, she led (or inspired, or lucked into, depending on who’s telling the tale) a remarkable military turnaround which reversed the fortunes of a French aristocracy decimated at Agincourt in 1415. That reversal saw the French Dauphin, who had commissioned her, crowned king (her own prophecy) and, within a generation, the English driven from French soil for good. The latter might have happened earlier had she not been captured by her enemies in 1430 (perhaps with the collusion of her “friends”), put on trial for heresy, and burned at the stake in 1431.

It was a heady history for a girl who did not live to see her twentieth birthday.

That she was exceptionally brave and charismatic, and believed herself ordained by God to defeat the English enemy, is undisputed. That she was a military genius is not out of the question. That she, an illiterate peasant, defended herself at her trial with a deftness which often baffled her learned inquisitors (and has presented a conundrum for skeptical historians ever since), is counted as no less remarkable than her miraculous ascension.

One thing no reading of history or legend can reasonably suggest, let alone take for granted, is that she was a scared rabbit, able to function only sporadically, and then in the throes of religious fanaticism.

Yet this is the very thing The Passion of Joan of Arc asks us to accept. On one hand, it is as skeptical of her faith as the worst of her interrogators. On the other, it grants her no exceptionalism except her faith–leaves her reduced to the abject helplessness written in Falconetti’s face from the first frames….

Before consigning her to smoke and ash…

Just as her persecutors intended…

They cheated. And, by leaving the viewer no reason to admire Joan on specific grounds rooted in what we know of her character–including her devotion above all--Passion does too. Joan’s tragedy–great enough to engender comparisons to Christ, the only martyr more famous because the only one more remarkable–sears us not because it should never have befallen her, but because it should never happen to any poor soul.

Which means The Passion of Joan of Arc–for all its bold style and masterful techniquemight just as well have been about anyone who suffered a similar fate.

I wonder, as Dreyer must have, whether Marie Antoinette, who had her head chopped off for pretty specific reasons, too, would have sold more tickets….

Or gifted a century’s worth of crit-illuminati with a similar excuse to wink, nod and genuflect.


A couple of mind-blowers…

Marketa Lazarova (1967)
Director: František Vláčil


Sign o’ the Times (1987)
Director: Prince


I happened to watch these back to back this week, not entirely on purpose but not entirely by coincidence either. They’ve both been sitting on my shelf for a while, waiting for a mood and, after watching Marketa Lazarova, as grim and compelling a visual and narrative experience as the human mind can touch without suffering immolation, I thought a Prince concert film might offer a little relief.

Maybe in some other context it would. But Marketa opened up so many doors to the long view of history there was probably no way to detach it from whatever came next. I certainly couldn’t detach it from a world of Dionysian hedonism where absolutely everything–including the god-like qualities of the  writer/director/performer at the center–is taken for granted.

The Czech film (voted the nation’s greatest in 1998, and, for once, I can believe it) takes nothing for granted, maybe because the thirteenth-century world it depicts is devoid of all security, all modernity, all comfort.

Though the plot is byzantine, the underlying narrative has a fable-like simplicity–thirteenth-century Czech warlords and their attendant clans anticipating the Hatfields and McCoys by six hundred years.

I suspect only someone who had come through the immediate experience of a war-torn land (Vláčil, a Czech native, was twenty-one when WWII ended and in his early forties when Marketa was filmed, apparently under physical circumstances not far removed from those of the story he was telling), could have brought such immediacy to a pre-civilizational world. God is present, but His ways are even more mysterious than usual and He seems in no mood to perform wonders. The Church is protected by forces less abstract than the Creator, and therefore weak and morally compromised, even within the walls of the nunnery that represents its presence in both the film and the world the film brings so unerringly, unnervingly near.

I suspect that going much further–making sense of it all–would require dozens of viewings, even for someone versed in the Czech language (one commentator after another on the extras provided by Criterion’s typically excellent package insists that the novel upon which the film is based is brilliant but untranslatable). But its primal power shines through, burning like a dark light hovering over one of Marketa’s endless snow-strewn vistas. It’s as full of “unexpected” turns as The Searchers, the only American film to which it bears a passing resemblance, and similarly driven by the force of an internal logic that, in the mind of those paying close enough attention, subsumes every “but would they actually do that?” objection before it even half-forms. (That resemblance would be more than passing if Debbie Edwards’ experiences–doubtless similar to what the title character in Marketa Lazarova suffers before our eyes, right down to “bonding” with her captor/rapist–were as fully fleshed out as her uncle’s….Ethan Edwards would have been perfectly at home in the thirteenth century).


All of this served to remind me, as I watched Prince cavort through his meticulously self-constructed Utopia, just how near the wheel is to turning, how close we are to seeing the Devil turn round no matter who we “elect” now or in the future. The skids are greased. If the present election cycle has been nothing else, it’s been a reminder that our current raison d’tre, a national mission now resisted by exactly no one, is to move Paradise from the future (where it had been so securely and imaginatively placed by the Reformations–Catholic and Protestant–that kicked off Europe’s emergence from the all-against-all darkness Marketa Lazarova so memorably depicts, and set it on the five-hundred-year winning streak which the war František Vláčil lived through put to an end) to the present.

Paradise–represented by Prince’s imagination or anyone else’s–is always supposed to be transcendent, post-civilizational, the place where there will be no more crying. In the real world all men and all nations have to pass through on the journey to Perfection, the search for it always ends by discovering new realms of suffering.


We had best enjoy the vicarious thrills of experiences like Sign o’ the Times (staggering by the norms of ordinary concert films, and, oh by the way, a beautifully complete refutation of the searing, unsettling album with which it shares a title and much of the same music–not for nothing do we call the man from Minneapolis a genius), while we can.

We are now flying very close to the sun. The world of Marketa Lazarova–which many now living in, say, the Middle East, would recognize as a mere nod to current events–will, via Paradise, return for the rest of us soon enough.