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Sunday, February 25, 2007

best film of the year

Since overcoming the furious seriousness of my youth, I have enjoyed taking the mantle of the æsthete in all matters of culture. In my assumption of the persona, that has meant elevating style over content and surface over depth. Consquently, I often say things like, 'Content is nothing; style is everything'. While I do earnestly think that such a belief offers benefits to humanity like safety and a guiltless love of beauty, I can also recognize my susceptibility to the pull of Wildean epigram in saying such things. ('There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.' Oscar Wilde, preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray.)

But then a great book or film or play of deep moral and political commitment comes along and all my dandyism and foppishness fall by the wayside. Commitment, of course, is not enough. It takes a work of great æsthetic achievement as well to avoid the pitfalls of easy didacticism and dull morals. I saw such a film last night and, while I recognize the risks inherent in immediately calling it the best film of the year, I'm going to run with it (and, yes, today is the Oscar deadline). It was, in short, a national epic for an age that history has taught to be anti-epic.

What is a national epic? Usually, it's a myth or a lie, a substitution of easy narcissism—if not supremacism—for the mess of history. The Nazis, the Soviets, the Serbs, and the Afrikaners all made deep investments in epic in the twentieth century, but only their crimes make them any different than all the other epic-hungry nations of the world. In a best-case scenario, national epics are what nations tell themselves so they can live with what they've done and forget it.

Salman Rushdie's great accomplishment in Midnight's Children was to write a national counter-epic. The novel comprehends the sweep of twentieth-century Indian history while constantly questioning narrative's ability to do so—'Reality is a question of perspective; the further you get from the past, the more concrete and plausible it seems'—and acknowledging its protagonist's need to 're-write the whole history of my times purely in order to place myself in a central role'. (chapter 12) Instead of a tale of heroism, the novel offers a narrative about narrativization told by a schlemiel with a big nose. Its sprawling form demonstrates that the only healthy version of history is the mixed-up kind that the novel calls in its final chapter 'the chutnification of history'. The great Taiwanese filmmaker Hou Hsiao-Hsien used a different post-epic approach in his trilogy (City of Sadness; The Puppetmaster; Good Men, Good Women) by formally showing the limits of cinema's ability to comprehend history and experience. Through his use of open framing, the characters fall out of the frame; the film literally cannot contain them.

All of which brings me to the best film of the year: Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others), directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck of Germany. The film, set in East Germany in 1984, takes us inside the Stasi and its surveillance of a risk-averse playwright whose actress-girlfriend the Stasi chief minister covets. The agency entrusts the operation to a true believer, a man so zealous in defense of his craft that he teaches interrogation at the Stasi academy. (Because the film is still out, I will avoid spoilers, but it kills me to have to do so.)

I had heard that the film was about Stasi surveillance, but I was surprised that it asks us to identify with the zealous agent Wiesler, played with supreme control by Ulrich Mühe. If Forest Whitaker finds subtlety in exuberance in The Last King of Scotland, Mühe finds exuberance in subtlety. Like Almodóvar's Hable con ella, the film begins with the characters attending a performance, but agent Wiesler is no Almdovóran hero moved to tears by art. No, he will spend the performance staring at his target through binoculars. But what of the power of art to transform us? Does anyone still believe in such things? (Reader, I struggle, for your benefit, with the need to avoid spoilers.)

Filmically, we're treated to a masterful display of the cinematography of surveillance and the color palette of Erich Honecker's DDR. Can this really be the director-screenwriter's first feature? The style of this film is as subtle and controlled as Mühe's performance. The rest of the cast is first-rate as well. Sebastian Koch embodies the cool, the quiet sexiness, and the humanism we fancifully attribute to men of the arts. Martina Gedeck burns as the desperate, self-doubting actress. Ulrich Tukur and Thomas Thieme are perfect as the badly dressed Stasi higher-ups. If they look like that in real life, they both need makeovers.

The film rises to the level of epic—and no, not counter-epic or 'epic' in quotes—by telling Germans the story of themselves. It's not a story of heroes and triumphs and easy moralizing. It's a story of truth. It hurts to watch it. If its classification as epic needs qualification, then let us call it an epic that hurts. The film shows us everything: the insane closed logic of the zealots of order, the depradations they exact on the innocent and the confused, the compromises of spirit that such an order requires for survival, and the tragic fate of those who cannot weather such impossible compromises.

We can only hope that when the long Bush-Cheney nightmare is over, we can have as thorough and uncompromising a truth-telling about how Americans sat by while the Supreme Court sanctioned a coup, towers fell while terrorism warnings were ignored, people who needed our help in Afghanistan were abandoned for war elsewhere, intellectuals paraded their support for torture on television, the rule of law was suspended, and our countrymen returned the culprits to power. But perhaps epic would not be the appropriate genre. No, the only genre suited to our late history would be tragedy.

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12 Comments:

Anonymous Steve said...

I've just seen this consummate masterpiece, and was wondering about your placement of it in the genre of "epic". Is it really an epic? Is it even a "national epic"? (Is it not of more universal existential and moral interest than simply "telling Germans the story of themselves" might suggest?)

Does it not more evidently belong in the genre of tragedy? A double-barrelled tragedy: that of the surveiller, and that of the surveilled?

One particularly telling aspect of the film, I thought, is that it is not merely a simple, wholesale denunciation of the DDR and all its ideological works. After all, Wiesler, the sympathetic Stasi agent, is the most ideologically pure communist in the story. The villains are not the true believers like Wiesler, but the cynics and hypocrites who are his superiors, exploiting power for their personal ends.

(We need not abandon aestheticism: the film, as you suggest, is stunningly lit and acted. And the scene with the piano music is almost unbearably perfect.)

8:42 PM, March 02, 2007

 
Blogger Jeff Strabone said...

About two days after writing about The Lives of Others, I read Stuart Klawans's review in The Nation where he calls it a melodrama. My first thought was that Klawans was right and that I might be wrong. Not that two answers can't be right, but it's not a film one would typically call an epic. Now Steve has rightly asked the same question: why call it an epic? Let me try to answer that, and we'll see whether my initial classification has any validity.

Steve is right that this is a film of 'universal existential and moral interest', but I think it's also, and chiefly, a specifically East German story. It's set in 1984, for obvious historical reasons to anyone who recalls the timeline of glasnost; it was shot in the actual Stasi offices; its historical verisimilitude is apparently as high as it gets; its scenes of post-1989 epilogue take us to the Stasi research center and walk us through the nitty-gritty of retrieving one's files. The scene of X seeking out Y [avoiding spoilers] avoids sentimentality and melodramatic excess but suggests the potentially explosive reckonings that probably occurred. (It also, for one brilliant moment, reverses the roles of X and Y.)

The scene in the research center gets at the heart of what prompted me to call the film an epic: it is a film of national reckoning. Real-life East Germans had to face up to what they had done when their long nightmare of surveillance was succeeded by the cold morning light of transparency. And the Stasi had maintained their meticulous records with stereotypical German precision.

I don't typically go for the kind of talk whereby artists are expected to speak for the nation. I usually take a more 'imagined communities' approach to nations in general. But the film overcame my skepticism that such artistic feats happen or that we should even want them to. I don't typically say things like 'telling Germans the story of themselves', but two factors led me to do so in this case.

One is that the DDR was such an empire of insidiousness that it managed to compromise and implicate its entire populace. Second, I felt that Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, the writer-director, had the ambition—and succeeded—to tell a story that comprehended all the roles that his countrymen played in their sordid national drama: careful compromiser, dissident, selfish abuser of power, guilt-ridden sufferer, and zealot. The sympathy afforded to Wiesler further demonstrates the national sweep that von Donnersmarck aimed for.

As for the definition of 'epic', the OED provides a background note to the word:
'2b. transf. A composition comparable to an epic poem.
The typical epics, the Homeric poems, the Nibelungenlied, etc., have often been regarded as embodying a nation's conception of its own past history, or of the events in that history which it finds most worthy of remembrance. Hence by some writers the phrase national epic has been applied to any imaginative work (whatever its form) which is considered to fulfil this function.'
(The italics appear in the original.)

I did not look that up when I wrote the original entry, but it fits perfectly. If this is a specifically German film, and if we can agree that von Donnersmarck intended the film as part of a national reckoning, then I think I can stand by my original classification of it as a 'national epic', with the proviso that its intentions are more traditionally epic than its narrative action.

12:00 AM, March 03, 2007

 
Anonymous Steve said...

Ah yes, I agree that that definition of "national epic" fits the film very well. Though I would still like to insist on the film as tragedy too, for reasons I can't really discuss if we are to keep the conversation spoiler-free. But the genres are not mutually exclusive, of course: the Oresteia is tragedy and national epic. We can keep bolting on genres, Polonius-like: it's a tragico-comico-national epic, really, isn't it?

I suppose I was resisting the idea of it as an epic because really, there are so few characters - it feels more like an intimate chamber tragedy. That the writer/director has combined this with such historical sweep and texture is, as you say, a magnificent achievement.

Das ist für mich.

7:42 AM, March 03, 2007

 
Blogger Jeff Strabone said...

SPOILERS APPEAR FROM THIS POINT ON.

It's a measure of the film's excellence that we could profitably discuss its genre at great length. I agree that it's also a tragedy, but I insist that you have the first word on the tragedy tip. So, go for it: why is it a tragedy?

Damn. I was going to quote that line, too, as further evidence that it was a film of national ambition: für mich indeed. And with all its German film awards and its Oscar, gift-wrapped indeed.

9:49 AM, March 03, 2007

 
Anonymous Steve said...

Ah, but I was quoting that line against the epic interpretation - after all, it's not für uns!

In The Curtain, Milan Kundera talks of postwar productions of Sophocles' Antigone that traduced the play by making Creon a nasty, fascist or Stalinist dictator and Antigone the uncomplicated heroine. The tragedy of the play is rather than they are both right. In that sense Antigone is also, we might say, a "tragedy of society", a tragedy of the polis, a political tragedy.

As is The Lives of Others, which is why you are right to point out its qualities as a story of a nation, as in some sense also a national epic. It is crucial to the film, I think, that Wiesler is not merely an avatar of a nasty ideology who happens to be a sympathetic character, but that the film evinces sympathy for the ideology itself, just as Creon is given sympathetic arguments for the necessity of keeping social order. "Socialism has to start somewhere," Wiesler says, as he sits down in the canteen among his inferiors, rather than in the special bosses' section.

It is Wiesler's tragedy that the machine in which he is a cog does not share his idealism: and so, in order to protect a man who is merely pointing out how the system is dysfunctional, he is forced to traduce his own principle that morality can only be enforced through order. He must betray order in order to protect morality. For this he ends up condemned to a basement purgatory for years, steaming open letters, and then, post-1989, becomes a deliverer of junk mail. (A beautiful touch: let's compare the junk mail, symbol of the new post-1989 capitalist East Germany, to the surveillance reports he used to deliver - is that progress? And what about the précis of the play about Lenin we discover he had written? A moment of unbearably poignant hilarity.)

Is the film also the tragedy of Georg Dreyman? Is he, in a way, the Antigone to Wiesler's Creon? Well, perhaps I ought not to make too much of the analogy to Antigone. At least, when we first meet Dreyman, he is the utterly charming figure of the vacillating, uncommitted artist, happy to make compromises with those he despises. And when, after the death of his friend, he is driven to make a moral stand, he is severely punished for it, through the fate of Christa-Maria. But he survives (and finds another girlfriend with impressive embonpoint), to become at the end a sort of Chorus figure. So the tragic hero, I think, is really Wiesler.

1:09 PM, March 03, 2007

 
Blogger Jeff Strabone said...

That is an excellent reading of the film, and I would not dispute that the film is also a tragedy. I appreciate your points about Kundera and Antigone.

It's funny that you read für mich in opposition to für uns because I did the exact opposite: I read the mich as a sweeping gesture outward to the all the michs watching the film. Though Georg Dreyman's book is for Wiesler, von Donnersmarck's film, as the outermost art object, is für uns. Also, the climax of the film is designed for maximum emotional identification with Wiesler. Epic considerations aside, anything that happens to him at that point in some sense happens to all of us by virtue of screenplay mechanics. Finally, if Wiesler stands in for East Germans, of any ideology, who tried to conduct themselves morally in an immoral order—a moral everyman perhaps—then the gift is for everymich.

You're right to call Wielser the hero, but the tragic hero? Let's consider the case against the claim. Dreyman and Wiesler both experience the death of Christa-Maria as a tragic loss. And, as you say, Dreyman makes it into the post-communist era quite rosily. But can we say that Wiesler doesn't?

One thing we haven't directly talked about yet is the film's belief in the transformative power of art. Wiesler is moved from, as you put it, order to morality by his first genuine experience of the power of art. Art undoes him; it disorders his world. When we first see him in the presence of art, he cares nothing for the performance: he spends it spying on his target. But the piano piece, the stolen Brecht volume, and Christa-Maria's talent move him as nothing else can. If the film were not so persuasive, I would laugh at the notion that a such a zealot could be moved to renounce his allegiance to tyranny and order by listening to a musical composition and reading a book. Ha! And you would probably join me in laughing at such late humanist hubris. And yet there it is: art has redeemed this man, and we believe it.

And, I might add, it is East German art that redeems him: Brecht. Brilliant! (The piano piece, 'Sonate des Guten Menschen', was actually composed by Gabriel Yared, but I assumed it was German, as I think we are meant to.)

What then is Wiesler's conclusion? That he wound up delivering junk mail in a nouveau capitalist regime, or that, given his newfound sensibility, the nation's leading playwright has dedicated a play to him? Wiesler, when we first meet him, was a man without feeling, æsthetically or sexually. He moved from the interrogation room to the bookstore. In a very important way, he wins, non-tragically.

Finally, a remark along the lines of your junkmail-as-progress observation. There's another questionable marker of post-communist progress. When Dreyman's play is revived at the end of the film, the staging is no longer socialist-realism but quite obviously Robert Wilson. If that's progress, bring back the Stasi!

12:46 AM, March 04, 2007

 
Blogger Jeff Strabone said...

Steve, considering how much you much like The Lives of Others and the similarity of our reasons for admiring it, I must encourage you to see Tom Stoppard's Rock 'n' Roll. I am confident that you would thoroughly enjoy it, and I'm sure Dan would agree. He and I saw it on New Year's Eve before we joined you for the party and we both loved it.

12:55 AM, March 04, 2007

 
Anonymous Steve said...

Yes indeed, you are right to say that Wiesler "wins" in some way at the end - the sudden light in his beautiful blue eyes for the final freeze-frame is heartbreaking - but of course the film is not so glib as to suggest that this final moral victory makes everything all right, for him or for anyone else. In a way this final image almost implies that he sees for the first time, though his old job was predicated on looking. Perhaps in this way he is a negative image of the blinded Oedipus - a tragic hero who, after all, does not die at the end of Oedipus Rex but achieves a kind of enlightenment. In both cases the enlightenment has carried a heavy price.

I would repeat that I think Wiesler's allegiance in the beginning of the film is to order, but not to "tyranny and order", as you suggest. So though he is indeed redeemed through art (how remarkable, as you say, that the film convinces us of such a potentially risible idea), it is not so much that the art - particularly the astonishing piano music (which I too had assumed was Schubert or something) changes his mind, but rather that it reminds him of the true moral basis of his beliefs, which are after all not so far removed from the moral basis of Dreyman's beliefs. That is part of the film's brilliance, that it can sympathetically portray the common (potential) humanity in two apparently opposed systems, and narrate a tragedy whose engine is their very opposition.

7:55 AM, March 04, 2007

 
Blogger Jeff Strabone said...

No, the ending surely does not make everything alright. If it did, the film would have no claim to tragedy at all. True, Wiesler's commitment was not to tyranny. He clearly hated the tyranny of his impure superiors at the Stasi. I was just adding my own two cents when I said that.

What you say is no doubt right, and your attention to the mechanics of tragedy is very insightful. You have made me curious about Kundera's book both here and at your own blog, Unspeak. I will try to squeeze it into my very jammed reading queue.

11:36 AM, March 04, 2007

 
Anonymous Steve said...

As you say, it is a mark of the film's brilliance that it can sustain the kinds of readings we have been essaying here, without being tied down to any of them.

The Kundera book (which I am to review) cannot fail, I think, to be of interest to anyone who is engaged with the novel.

6:28 PM, March 05, 2007

 
Blogger Daniel F said...

Finally I have seen this sad and impressive film. On your point, Jeff, about its status as a national epic, I felt that the title was a bitterly ironic one, at least for German viewers. These are not just the lives of others - this is who we are.

11:58 AM, January 04, 2009

 
Blogger Jeff Strabone said...

That is a good point. The title definitely means. I think it bears the implication that the DDR turned Germans into 'others', i.e. people further distanced from each other than would normally be the case: The Lives of People Who Can Only Be Others to Each Other Because Intimacy Has Been Rendered Impossible.

2:44 PM, January 06, 2009

 

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