Líf annarra - þýsk verðlaunamynd.

Fyrir nokkru horfði ég á myndina Das Leben der Anderen - Líf annarra - þýska verðlaunamynd, sem nú hefur verið nefnd til Óskarsverðlauna. Myndin er talin enn ein staðfesting á endurreisn þýskrar kvikmyndagerðar, sem sögð er hafa hafist með hinni eftirminnilegu mynd Goodbye, Lenin! Báðar sækja þessar myndir efnivið sinn til A-Þýskalands.

Ég birti hér gagnrýni úr The New York Times í morgun um Das Leben der Anderen. Efnistök gagnrýnandans eru góð og ekki verið að troða ofan í kok lesandans einkaskoðunum eða fordómum, en við það megum við lesendur oft búa af hendi gagnrýnenda. 



February 9, 2007


A Fugue for Good German Men


“The Lives of Others” is haunted by a piece of music called “Sonata for a Good Man,” composed for the film by Gabriel Yared and, at the same time, magically familiar to some of its characters. Like the story that surrounds it — a suspenseful, ethically exacting drama, beautifully realized by the writer and director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck — Mr. Yared’s piece is melancholy, elegant and complicated.

Goodness, as a subject for art, risks falling prey to piety and wishful thinking, but “The Lives of Others,” one of the nominees for this year’s best foreign-language film Oscar, never sacrifices clarity for easy feeling. Posing a stark, difficult question — how does a good man act in circumstances that seem to rule out the very possibility of decent behavior? — it illuminates not only a shadowy period in recent German history, but also the moral no man’s land where base impulses and high principles converge. Mr. von Donnersmarck, born in West Germany in 1973 and making his feature film debut, demonstrates astonishing visual and narrative rigor. Even more remarkably, he is able to reach back into the totalitarian past and over the Berlin Wall into the grim, brutal absurdity of the late, unlamented German Democratic Republic, and lay bare the anxious, cruel psychology of socialism as it once existed.

There are two good men in “The Lives of Others,” which starts in Berlin in 1984, and they are presented in counterpoint, never on screen at the same time. One, Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch), is a successful playwright; the other, Capt. Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe), is the Stasi officer who spies on him. Georg, tall and handsome, with a mane of brown hair and a natural grace that stops just short of arrogance, leads something of a charmed life, enjoying a measure of official favor without losing the respect of his fellow artists, who are not all as lucky, or as circumspect, as he is. He shares a roomy apartment in an old building (the kind a capitalist real estate agent would describe as “full of character”) with his girlfriend, Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck), a tall, lovely actress who also stars in his plays.

Wiesler, in contrast, appears at first to be a virtual caricature of the unsmiling Stalinist bureaucrat, with a touch of the old Gestapo thrown in for good measure. Wiry and bald, he lives alone in a drab, brutalist high-rise apartment building, distracting himself with state-run television (which reports on chicken farming and declares that “the 10th Party Conference economic policy is solid”) and a quick visit from a prostitute.

He is first seen lecturing a room full of aspiring secret policemen in the techniques of interrogation, and he addresses this task and his surveillance of Georg with the proud discipline of a professional and the zeal of a true believer. (To imply that “our humanistic system” would persecute an innocent person, he tells one of his prisoners, is itself potentially grounds for arrest.)

It is not inaccurate to describe “The Lives of Others” as the story of how both men become disillusioned and hasten each other’s disillusionment. But the paradoxes inherent in this story — which are central to Mr. von Donnersmarck’s brilliant exposition of the Orwellian logic of East German Communism — are worth pausing over. It is not simply that Wiesler, the state-sanctioned, clandestine predator, develops a measure of sympathy for his quarry as he listens in on Georg’s private, unguarded moments (“presumably they have intercourse,” he types in his daily report after eavesdropping on Georg’s birthday party). Surely his training would have inoculated him against this kind of reverse Stockholm syndrome.

Rather, even as Georg is driven toward actions that implicate him, for the first time, in dissident activity, Wiesler becomes convinced of Georg’s essential innocence and takes steps to protect him. The plot, as it acquires the breathless momentum of a thriller, also takes on the outlines of a dark joke. The poet and the secret policeman — both writers, in their differing fashions — may be the only two true patriots in the whole G.D.R.; in other words, the only people who take the Republic’s stated ideals at face value. But since the nation itself functions by means of the wholesale and systematic betrayal of those ideals, the only way Wiesler and Georg can express their loyalty is by committing treason.

Wiesler is at first suspicious of Georg, whose social polish and air of entitlement certainly don’t seem very proletarian. But he soon discovers the real reason for his investigation. Minister Hempf (Thomas Thieme), a government official and former Stasi bigwig, is infatuated with Christa-Maria (who is unable to fend off his grotesque attentions), and he wants some dirt on his rival. Wiesler’s boss, Colonel Grubitz (Ulrich Tukur) — the closest thing Wiesler has to a friend — is happy to advance his own career prospects by going along with the minister’s wishes. Faced with such corruption and cynicism at the highest reaches of the party, what is a good man — or, for that matter, a dutiful Communist — to do?

There is a bracing, old-fashioned quality to Mr. von Donnersmarck’s film, which supplies us with good guys to root for and villains to despise. But it also shows, with excruciating precision, the cruelty with which a totalitarian state can exploit the weakness and confusion of its citizens. And even as they are, to some extent, enacting a morality play, the actors also seem like real, vulnerable people forced into impossible choices. This is especially true of Ms. Gedeck, whose natural nobility — her height, her carriage, the strong line of her jaw — makes Christa-Maria’s half-hidden fragility all the more poignant.

The suspense comes not only from the structure and pacing of the scenes, but also, more deeply, from the sense that even in an oppressive society, individuals are burdened with free will. You never know, from one moment to the next, what course any of the characters will choose. Mr. Mühe conveys Wiesler’s curious evolution with appropriate meticulousness and reserve. It is only in retrospect that you appreciate the depth and subtlety of emotion that underlie his performance.

A terrible sadness lies at the heart of “The Lives of Others” — a reckoning of lives and talents wasted by a state with no good reason to exist apart from the maintenance of its own power. But there are comic, even farcical elements as well: a dictatorship that calls itself a democratic republic is inherently ridiculous as well as malignant.

In 2007 we, of course, know in advance the punch line that history will deliver in the autumn of 1989. But the easy, complacent distance that informs much historical filmmaking is almost entirely absent from this supremely intelligent, unfailingly honest movie.

Early in the film, Minister Hempf condescendingly mocks the faith in humanity Georg expresses in his plays: “People don’t change,” he says. And in some ways Mr. von Donnersmarck endorses the minister’s point of view, even as he turns its cynicism into cause for hope. Georg and Captain Wiesler, though they occasionally waver and worry, remain true to their essential natures, and thus embody the film’s deepest, most challenging paradox: people don’t change, and yet the world does.