Big Brother Is Listening, Too

Boulder Weekly | March 5, 2007
Not only did Germany’s The Lives of Others win the Oscar last week for best foreign film, it also bagged the unofficial prize for biggest upset. Though the heavy favorite, Pan’s Labyrinth, picked up three technical awards, Mexican director Guillermo del Toro went home with nada in the international category that counts most.

Both films attempt to exorcise the nightmares of 20th-century political oppression. Whereas de Toro mixes a witches’ brew of fantasy and fascism in Franco’s World War II Spain, writer/director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck digs into the former East Germany in the years before the Berlin Wall came tumbling down.

Set in the ominously Orwellian year of 1984, The Lives of Others is uncannily like Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation, translated with grim political overtones and subtitles. Donnersmarck’s super snooper is Captain Wiesler (Ulrich Muhe), a surveillance expert for the Stasi, the GDR’s dreaded secret police. Dedicated to the mandate of rooting out the “enemies of socialism,” Wiesler accepts the assignment to collect evidence on Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch), a renowned East Berlin playwright.

Much like Coppola’s San Francisco bugger, Wiesler is supremely detached, yet also vicariously fascinated, as he carries out his investigation. Once he plants all the bugs in Dreyman’s flat, he sets up shop in the attic right above it.

As cool and methodical as Wiesler is, Donnersmarck is practically Brechtian in his distanced, fictionalized style. It makes for an intellectual drama, though not always a compelling one. Perhaps necessarily, most of the lives in The Lives of Others are inert, sapped by the oppressiveness and despair that comes from living in a totalitarian police state. Though likely cathartic for his countrymen, Donnersmarck’s airing of German dirty laundry could have used more agitation.

As Wiesler investigates a citizen thought to be above suspicion, we go about investigating Wiesler, whose drab and solitary life is only interrupted by a visit from a clock-watching prostitute. The cracks in the captain’s steely-eyed veneer appear slowly, partially due to his fixation on Dreyman’s lead actress and lover (Martina Gedeck). Another impetus is the captain’s realization that the motive for the investigation lies with a piggish party official’s lecherous interest in the woman.

How does one gain a moral conscience in a corrupt environment? How can profound personal and political change occur? These same themes are also the refrain ringing through the current British drama Amazing Grace. As opposed to its muted story, The Lives of Others is most alive in the epilogue that brings the film closer to a documentary mode. Evidently under the influence of 1970s Hollywood, Donnersmarck is good example of how global glasnost is indirectly turning even specialized foreign pictures into a hybrid resembling McCinema.


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