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Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Some Reactions to "The Lives of Others"

Though I missed the chance to see The Lives of Others with Ethan when he saw it on his recent trip here, I did get a chance to see it this past weekend, and I can't recommend it highly enough.  (This follows on the heels of seeing Mira Nair's The Namesake a couple weeks back, which is simply gorgeous and outstanding.) 

Here's a quick capsule summary from Slate's Dana Stevens:

The film opens in 1984 in East Berlin, where we see Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe) a captain of the East German secret police, teaching a class in extreme interrogation techniques. These include sleep deprivation, the spouting of Orwellian paradoxes (if the prisoner believes the state capable of detaining him for no reason, that belief alone is enough to justify his arrest), and, in a creepy detail, the collection of the prisoner's seat cushion after the interview to be preserved as an odor sample for police dogs. The real intrigue begins when Wiesler is assigned to bug and monitor the apartment of a successful writer, Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch), and his girlfriend, a famous stage actress named Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck). Georg is neither a subversive nor a party loyalist: He's a go-along-to-get-along guy, too comfortable with his success to question the regime closely, even as it closes in on his scruffier and more outspoken fellow artists. But Wiesler's superior, Col. Grubitz (Ulrich Tukur), wants to further his career by impressing the party bigwig Bruno Hempf (Thomas Thieme), who is looking to get his swinish mitts on Christa-Maria by any means necessary. And Wiesler himself is a rigid ideologue, a socialist automaton who mistrusts all artists on principle—even if the meticulous care with which he runs his own surveillance operation hints at a thwarted creative desire.

The Lives of Others is a more politically charged movie than the Namesake, and one that raises fascinating questions about tensions among law, criminality, artistic purity and personal loyalty--thus I have a few more comments to add than I normally do in my genre of microscopic film reviews.  But these might only be of limited interest to those who have seen the movie, so I'll put them below the fold and invite others to weigh in on this with their own reactions in the comments.

The first half of the movie struck me initially as useful anti-communist cinematic propaganda, detailing and dramatizing the dangers of a surveillance state where the Stasi rules, where apparatchiks abuse state machinery for venal personal goals of lust and social currency.  Of course, that pro-Western vibe starts to deteriorate pretty rapidly the more one reflects upon the Bush Administration's penchant for sloppy or malfeasant surveillance operations of its own.  In this sense, the movie's early message -- Boo surveillance! -- is capable of appealing to liberal democrats' best instincts while also raising severe questions about the ways in which we have slipped (or leapt!) from those noble ambitions in our own efforts against terrorism.  Sure enough, the movie will hit home for those prawfs who readily admit that the Bush Administration has served to radicalize them, moving them from generic neoliberalism or moderate conservatism to full-throated skeptics of state power, verging on shades of crypto-anarchism.

As Wiesler's character -- a profile first in the banality of evil and then in courage -- develops through the arc of the film, the movie is transformed.  Wiesler's character microcosmically reflects a struggle of humans against "humanisms," the overfed archetypes that permeate the GDR's administration.  Ideological abstractions and commitments become wellsprings of cruelty.  Basic decency is the most subversive rebellion. 

When Wiesler's eroico resistance is made out, his career suffers, and he's relegated to steaming envelopes open until he walks off the job on the day the Berlin Wall falls down.  Wiesler only finds his own serenity after the surveilled writer, Georg Dreyman (played by Koch, a German Pierce Brosnan double,) discovers Wiesler's action in the course of post-unification Germany's open-file policy, and issues a subtle but no less monumental acknowledgement of gratitude.  The movie, which at first struck me as essentially political, stands, in the end, not for East or West, each of which is capable of its own (though differing) cruelties, but for a retrenchment from politics.  In this respect, it reflected what I take to be the ethos of literature generally: to paraphrase Irving Howe, "the notion that abstract ideas invariably contaminate [life] and should be kept at a safe distance from it." Am I mistaken with this reaction? I'm curious to hear your thoughts if you've seen the movie.

Posted by Administrators on April 17, 2007 at 12:01 AM in Film | Permalink


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I suppose that I had in mind how a number of seemingly small events turn Wiesler, the committed Stasi officer, into someone who goes against his convictions and training. None of these events are ideological so it's unlikely that he has a sort of first-order ideological change (more on what I mean by that in a minute). I doubt that these figures were _so_ different from those he'd worked on before without a change. But this time something different happens- little things. A prostitute won't stay and chat at just the wrong time, he bumps in to his target at a bad moment in a cafe, he drinks more than he normally does, all of these things are necessary for the change in him. And Dreyman's friend kills himself- without this there is no need to do what he later does and this particular case doesn't have the strong result it does. So, a series of chance events leads him to take actions that seem quite outside his character. By accident he becomes a hero in a small way after being something of a monster (probably by accident there, too.) In such cases we often re-interprite our story so that we are actors rather than acted on (changing the 'so it was' into the 'so I willed it', in Nietzsche's terminology, if I recall it right.) But, this is a re-interpritation. Actions that were not ideological become so only later. This isn't the classical moral luck case, of course, but I think it's a related phenomena and quite a common one.

Posted by: Matt | Apr 17, 2007 10:25:23 PM

Matt writes: To my mind what it is a movie about is how things that at first seem like very minor decisions can have very large results for us, how whether one is good or bad often depends heavily on the circumstances one is in, and how we then re-write our own naratives to make us look more like actors than acted on.

Matt, I would not have thought about the movie in terms of moral luck, but it's a fascinating suggestion. Which parts struck you as instances of that?

Posted by: Dan Markel | Apr 17, 2007 7:50:41 PM

I think you're right that the movie isn't, at its heart, a political movie (and that this helps answer some of the criticsim that it doesn't acurately portray east germany, that there are no known cases of Stasi officers doing this, etc.) To my mind what it is a movie about is how things that at first seem like very minor decisions can have very large results for us, how whether one is good or bad often depends heavily on the circumstances one is in, and how we then re-write our own naratives to make us look more like actors than acted on. (That is, I'd say it's a movie about a certain subset of issues discussed under the topic of moral luck.) As such I thought it was terrific.

Posted by: Matt | Apr 16, 2007 8:41:09 PM

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