Friday, December 26, 2008

the lives of others ("das leben der anderen") movie review

i got a heads up to check out "the lives of others" from richard a few weeks ago. when i read the description and found out that the film was set in berlin, 1984, i didn't need to to read further. in the summer of 1984 i spent just over a week in berlin and came to love the city. i would have gotten hold of this film just for a quick trip down memory lane to catch a glimpse of the city. that there was an excellent story included was a bonus (and "the lives of others" did win the oscar for best foreign language film in 2006)!

when i learned that the main plot element focused on wiretapping, i immediately suspected this would be a derivative version of gene hackman in "the conversation." there is, in fact, a superficial (imo) resemblance between muhe (captain wiesler) and hackman. there is, also, more than a passing similarity in these two films. both center on the eavesdropper and his slow and steady involvement in the lives of those he spies upon. the result in both films is that the "spy" inserts himself in the action to "save" those who he spied on.

while the plot of "the lives of others" is interesting, this is another film that captured my interest primarily with the atmospherics of place. the grey, bleak backdrop of east berlin. the sheer physical ugliness of the political apparatchik that put into effect the eavesdropping on the playwright and his girlfriend (for personal - not state -reasons) is frightening. he could easily step into the role of an east european mobster without change in make-up, dialogue, or character. creepy is the mildest description. the gangster-like behavior of the east german leaders is hard to miss.

the notion of government surveillance for state security is, however, subverted because the subject is not suspected of anti-government behavior (albeit that premise is itself ironic, since the playwright does engage in "proscribed" activities). the purpose of the wiretapping is the get something, anything, on the subject that can be used to separate him - physically - from his girlfriend. then political boss can force his will upon ("seduce") her. it's a breathtakingly brazen plan. even more so when his seduction is a barely disguised threat of social excommunication. that the stasi can be throw, full-time, into this disgraceful task on the flimsiest of pretext is the truly frightening aspect of this film.

it's weisler's realization of the pretext, and his role in furthering the personal (not state) nature of this surveillance is what that ultimately turns him against the "state." strangely, i found the interpersonal drama of the love "triangle" of little (or, no) interest. the more interesting parts - such as the opening sequence where captain wiesler interrogates a suspect and snippets of that interrogation are inter cut in his classroom lecture - are almost missed as throwaways. the opening sequence, and the role played by the chair seat, for example, reappears - not once, but twice, at the end of the film. that particular leitmotif was spot on! the film itself was incredibly well constructed.

while the there is a redemption aspect that "wraps" up the film, story still left a dank taste. at the conclusion (the ending of which i won't spoil here), i changed my mind, ever so slightly, about the hackman "conversation" parallel. instead, "the lives of others" unintentionally reminded me of michael caine role as the reluctant british "spy" in the film version of len deighton's "the ipcress file!" oh, the dubious characters, the moral ambivalence, and the "dirty work" required to protect the state from trouble!

if you like quasi-political thrillers, rent this film. in fact, both of the other two films, "the conversation" and the "ipcress file" are also worth checking out!

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