Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Lives of Others

**I wrote this review for a class in Eastern European Studies, which is why it's very long. It does contain some spoilers. If you don't read this review because of that, please watch the film. It has easily become one of my favorites and I recommend it to everyone.**

The Lives of Others takes place in East Germany (or the German Democratic Republic) in the year 1984. The State Security, or Stasi, monitor and interrogate individuals under suspicion of undermining the communist totalitarian regime in some way. One of these suspected people is Georg Dreyman, a respected playwright, along with his girlfriend Christa-Marie Sieland, a famous actress. Their apartment is under twenty four hour surveillance by Stasi officers, using microphones and cameras. The leader of the surveillance is Hauptmann Gerd Weisler, a stoic man who is very good at his job. As he observes the couple’s lives, he sees the heartbreak of living in such a way and the effect of the rampant corruption in their government. His allegiances gradually shift from the government to the people. As a result, he starts to hide incriminating evidence from the rest of the Stasi to protect Georg in his pursuit to write an article about the concealment of the number of suicides in the GDR (which is the second highest in the world). Only time will tell what the consequences of Wiesler’s actions and how long he can get away with it.

This film has easily become one of my favorites. Everything about the film was well done and exceptional. The cinematography was interesting in that it was very direct. There were no art film type shots of extreme close ups or anything superfluous like that. Every scene was imperative to the story and didn’t stray away on tangents. This directness coupled with the slow, suspenseful story line created an utterly unique film.

Music played a large role in the film. The underscoring used added emotion in some parts and suspense in others. The orchestra started out as beautiful and melancholic at the beginning of the film. As the story progressed and events started to unfold, the thought processes of characters were hidden. There were points that were extremely suspenseful when the viewer had no idea what was going to happen: if Georg was going to get found out or even how long he could keep going without detection. All this was reflected in the pulsing low strings, echoing a heartbeat, and the higher strings repeating scalar figures above them. This theme was one of the simplest but most effective I have ever heard. It's kind of like John Carpenter's Halloween soundtrack in that respect.

Although there was only one instance of source music that was really significant, it caused a very important turning point in the narrative. When Georg is told that his friend Jerska committed suicide, he took out the piece he was given by Jerska, Sonata for a Good Man, and played to articulate his emotions. Wielser was listening in at this point and he was moved to tears. He really listened to the piece and the feeling behind it and it changed his whole outlook on life. The film, at its core, was about the power of art and its effect on people.

Gerd Weisler was an interesting and complex character who evolved through the course of the film. At first, he was an emotionless, humorless automaton for the government. He felt no sympathy for the people he interrogated and performed his job well. He had no real human contact, as shown through the scene where he hired a prostitute. He wanted her to stay with him for a while for companionship, but she needed to move on to the next customer. Her attitude reflected his own about his job: disconnected and emotionless. From the beginning of the film up until his musical revelation, Wielser’s stoic demeanor had never changed at all. Even when he was moved by the music, the only indication was the single tear he shed. Ulrich Mühe delivered an amazing and subtle performance. In the rest of the film, he remained unaffected outwardly. He changed completely on the inside. Through his experience with art, he, in turn, became an artist by creating the play Georg was supposed to be making and fabricating Georg and his friends’ actions. Wiesler connected emotionally with these people and felt he should risk his job and his life to do the right thing for them.

The overall message of the film is one condemning totalitarianism and asserting that freedom and the arts are essential to a society. Although the regime in the movie utilizes communism as their economic system, there really wasn’t any indication that it was the communist aspects of the society that led to its downfall. Free thought and “subversive” art were forbidden there. This was exemplified in the scene where Oberstleutnant Grubitz was talking about a paper that one of his students wrote about the five different kinds of artists. This was what would happen after an incarceration of ten months for the artist type most like Georg: “After 10 months, we release… Most type 4s we've processed in this way never write anything again. Or paint anything, or whatever artists do. And that without any use of force. Just like that. Kind of like a present.” The aim of the government was to make artists that create undesirable art to stop creating in the easiest way possible. This scene in the film almost made me cry because it goes against just about everything I believe in and stand for. It’s almost unbelievable that something like this happened in real life. Corruption is also rampant in the government, seen in Minister Hempf, his treatment of Christa-Marie, the inhumane treatment of people by the government, among other things. The situation seems like it came out of a science fiction story, like Brave New World, 1984 (which is, ironically, the year the film starts), or Equilibrium.
My favorite scene of the entire movie was the very last one. After the Berlin Wall has come down, Wielser was reduced to steaming open letters, inspecting them, and delivering them. Georg had previously found out how Wielser had helped him and written a book entitled Sonata for a Good Man. Wiesler looked the same as he did earlier in the film, but instead of Stasi grey, he wore a light blue. Also, he had a slight smile on his face. This indicated that he is happy with his life now, as bad as it was, because he helped someone and did what was right. He went into the bookstore and read the inscription in the book, which said, “To HGW XX/7, in gratitude.” When the salesperson asked if he wanted it giftwrapped, Wiesler said, “No, it’s for me.” I was moved to tears by this scene and it was just perfect.

The Lives of Others was an excellent movie. The pacing was slow, but proved to be incredibly suspenseful. All of the characters were realistic and flawed people that developed throughout the movie, the most remarkable of them all being Wiesler. This real life dystopian story touched. I would recommend this film to anyone who doesn’t mind thinking or reading subtitles when they watch movies.

My rating: 10/10 fishmuffins

1 comment:

Sullivan McPig said...

This one is still on my 'must watch' list. Great review!