The Lives of Others (2006, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck)
As confirmed by just about everyone who has seen it and spent any amount of time in its documented territory, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s The Lifes of Others deserves a place in history for its accurate and palpable sense of place alone; the stillness and cold mechanics of life in East Germany before the Wall collapsed are hauntingly brought to life and examined with the typical verve and sensitivity of modern German cinema. The evocation of the terrifyingly efficient surveillance on citizens by the government’s Secret Police is fascinating and troubling. That alone, however, isn’t really enough to justify the reputation of the film — already — as a modern world cinema classic. Indeed, it sadly looks thinner and more problematic the more you examine it.
Yet conversely, the acclaim and celebration makes sense to a degree because of the director’s simple way with yarn-spinning; it’s a movie that grips hard and unfolds its tale absorbingly, carefully, irresistibly — with a top-caliber script, it would be a potential landmark. Unfortunately, Donnersmarck also wrote the screenplay, which could have used a few more rewrites. He seems far less competent in this regard than he is as a creator of a disturbing and uneasy environment. The fictitious element opens in the mid-’80s, where Stasi are monitoring a writer (Sebastian Koch) who is a professed and recognized socialist, apparently for the reason that someone higher up (Thomas Thieme) wants to mess about with his girlfriend (Martina Gedeck). The skeleton of a fascinating arc is there; it wraps up quite neatly, with the officer assigned to the case (Ulrich Mühe) finding his black heart melted by the recognition of a world beyond, like Montag in Fahrenheit 451 first picking up David Copperfield; he anonymously looks the other way and commits a sort of formalized deception to rescue his subject from scrutiny. In turn, without ever meeting him, the scribe eventually finds a way to (from a somewhat smug distance) provide credit and thanks to his benefactor.
Pat as that may seem, it feels good while it’s playing out. The biggest issue with the film is rather in its characterization, with both major characters ludicrously unconvincing — it’s hard to buy the abrupt transition of Officer Wiesler, portrayed inspiringly well by Mühe, from a heartless interrogator teaching students how to break supposed dissidents to a tearful believer in the Human Spirit because of the elements of the playwright’s life he hears, as if hearing someone play the piano for a while and increasing one’s number of orgasms could turn someone into a teddy bear. What makes this all the more difficult to take is that the controversial writer Georg Dreyman himself, whose recognition of the suspicion clouding him is accompanied by hidden papers and frantic outdoor meetings, is a Ken doll with no real personality — surely not half as much as the intriguingly complex lonely cop who’s bugged his apartment. It’s partially just that Koch is poor casting, slick and pompous enough that he can’t put across a sensitive enough soul to cause such a change of heart, but more that the writing is just half-baked and absent of the sort of character detail and simple honesty that might bridge these gaps.
As for Martina Gedeck’s Christa, coveted girlfriend to Dreyman, she’s here for us to view as first a sexual being then (of course!) an easily corrupted villain then finally the D.W. Griffith-like archetype — down to a hand-across-the-brow suicidal race into a busy street — who sacrifices herself because of the (also inevitably sex-related) wrongdoing she sets upon her lover. In all three cases, she’s playing a rote all-purpose catalog of every classic trope saddling female roles in western cinema, western literature really. The tone-deaf nastiness of the way the film repeatedly sidelines her, the limited scope it sees for her purpose, would only be excusable if this were a true story — and as much as the National Review crowd might wish otherwise, it ain’t. Instead, the histrionics (hers as well as the film’s) are just very Hollywood, so it’s no wonder this is so widely embraced by members of the crowd who ordinarily wouldn’t bother to watch a foreign language film.
Donnersmarck simply doesn’t seem to have a deep comprehension of the relationship between characterization and plotting; his errors are numerous, and easy to spot, like the way he lets Christa and Wiesler revolve around a stony dead weight of a character and then irritatingly renders their behavior symmetrical. We’re a long way from any serious struggle with morals here — it’s all just so damned simplistic; Wiesler finds it all too easy to fall into tenderness, Christa finds it all too easy to meaninglessly betray someone under somewhat dubious, exaggerated circumstances. The writer-director pits everything on his Schindler’s List-inspired structure, expecting it to be so touching as to be acceptable. Despite the syrup and sentiment, it is affecting at times, and time has already been good to it — in much the same way as The Conversation, it’s cast in a new light by the Edward Snowden case in the U.S. — but as painstakingly detailed and researched as it apparently is, it just doesn’t have the ring of truth in its actual storytelling. Too many shortcuts, too much that’s unmistakably a reflection of a writer’s catalog of screenwriting tricks and not a deep following of storytelling instincts or, much less, a true portrait of the deeper aspects of a time and place.
But Donnersmarck is well acquainted with precisely where the heartstrings he needs are located, so he effectively makes a film on the order of The Shawshank Redemption: a giver, in a sense, of near-mindless pleasure. One assumes that the reason it moves beyond the foreign-film ghetto in the U.S. is that it just doesn’t require much of its audience, so even a neanderthal like Rush Limbaugh can understand it. I bet he likes Life Is Beautiful too.