(2006) dir. Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
This film won last year’s Oscar for Best Foreign Film (an increasingly myopic perspective for an award, honestly) over Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), which was considered by several critics that I’d read to be their surprising yet “correct” choice. I don’t know, maybe this is due to some aspect of expectation, but I would disagree. del Toro was robbed. The Academy did it again. This in not to say that The Lives of Others is not a good film. It is a good film, certainly worth watching. But the other film that came to mind in watching this was Michael Haneke’s Caché (2005), which seemed interestingly like a comparison point. Caché is brilliant, as is Haneke.
The Lives of Others is a fairly straight-forward film about a time in East Germany (when there was an East Germany), 1984, with the poignantly 1984 panoptic government, spying, detailing every little nuance of people’s lives. Making criminals out of regular people who would speak their minds or try to leave. And really, it’s the story of a single man, who is an expert in the spy machine who finds his soul in spying on a playwright and his actress wife, who become the subjects of scrutiny due to the slavish lusts of a higher up official who wants the actress for himself, whether it takes rape or persecution.
The spy, Ulrich Mühe, is put off by the fact that he is executing against an unwarranted invasion. He believes in the state and its right to oust and punish its “enemies”. But he learns to appreciate the artists, their love for one another, their lack of real crime against the state so much so that when the writer does produce a dangerous inflammatory article about suicide rates in their country, he steps in to protect them, develops and conscience and is ultimately deemed “a good man”.
It’s a sad and yet satisfying story about a cultural period that has only begun to be analyzed in film. The world behind the Iron Curtain. The world that Americans imagined, but didn’t really “know”. Oddly enough, it would be quite good to make a similar film about the CIA tapping in on people with connections to the Weathermen or other radical groups in the United States. This invasion and total observation and tracking has been done here. In fact, with the laws enacted post-9/11, we may be more spied upon than ever. I guess that the main difference is the ability to prosecute people for such things. Although, I’d be willing to guess that this is not all that different in more ways than the average American would be willing to accept.
The one question you might ask is “why do I compare it to Michael Hanake’s Caché?” The idea is obscure, perhaps, in my mind, but it deals with observation, the exposure of past crimes, of hidden facts and realities. This film takes a very straight-forward approach with the content, easy to identify with and to feel moved by the character who achieves redemption and freedom. Caché is about something far more hidden, far less redeemed, a much more living psychological crisis. The villain in The Lives of Others is given a face; he is the fat, heinous, irredeemable official who exploited his power and ruined people’s lives. He receives a small comeuppance, to which he remains smug. In Caché, the solution is like an open wound. The healing has yet to happen, if it can ever. The crisis happened in a more “free” society and is all the more shocking and frightening because of it.
And for Pan’s Labyrinth, utterly different, is just a more fascinating visionary film. A fantasy, a poem. Something new.
This is not to discredit The Lives of Others. It is a good film. It is worth seeing. It is just less challenging and problematic than it could have been.