Friday, May 04, 2007

Das Leben Der Anderen (The Lives of Others)

The verdict: Genius (and you can verify that I haven’t said that too often in reviews). A beautifully crafted story. This is heavyweight cinema.
The rating: 9/10

I have never seen the problem with subtitled movies, and to this day it baffles me that people who claim to enjoy cinema could deprive themselves of what could prove to be the most enjoyable of experiences, simply because of the requirement to read sub-titles. The Bruce Lee videos I watched as a kid are among my earliest memories of movies, and the comical translation of the subtitles was part of that whole experience. Fast forward to today, and I can safely say that some of the best I have seen in the last ten years have been subtitled.

Two years ago, Michael Haneke's 'Caché' completely blew me away, but that could not be nominated for the best Foreign Language Oscar, because Haneke's first language is German, and the film was made in French with a French production company. 'Downfall' was also a German production, and in PCMR's view, ranks as one of the best movies of the decade so far. Last year, 'Pan's Labyrinth' was an absolute must see, and managed to scoop a couple of Oscar nods to boot. Also in 2006, 'Indigènes' and 'The Life of Others' – shot in French/Arabic and German respectively, were both nominated for best Foreign Language movie, and in PCMR’s book, display a level of quality that should really justify putting them in the "Best Picture" category.

For many, 'subtitled' evokes 'arthouse', and for some that's a problem. However, Asian movies too have enjoyed renewed success in Europe and the US of late, with the 'Asia Extreme' series gaining a greater notoriety lately than simply 'cult'. (Which generally just means 'crap' – Ed). Movies like 'Oldboy' and 'Battle Royale' are recognised by critics and viewers alike as pushing the boundaries of what cinema can do, challenging audiences while providing genuinely exhilarating entertainment.

So why does the anti-subtitles lobby prevail? Well, I'm baffled to be honest. I can think of another reason why I like foreign movies, and in a last attempt to win over this camp, I'll refer to Terminator 2, one of my all time favourite Hollywood actioners. I don't know if you remember the device, as it seems ludicrous now, but James Cameron attempted to fool the audience in this movie. He wanted us to believe in the famous slow-mo 'guns and roses' scene, where both terminators have the young John Connor trapped in the mall, that Arnie was a bad guy. I mean, come on, by that stage we all knew Arnie was the hero, and this is the problem with a lot of Hollywood movies. Generally, we recognize the star (read 'hero') the English or French character actor (read 'bad guy') and the female lead (read 'love interest'). This recognition adds a level of predictability to Hollywood movies that only the best in the business can manage to overcome.

With 'The Lives of Others' and many other foreign movies, this recognition and predictability is notably absent. Our protagonist is agent Wiesler, played brilliantly by the gaunt, ghostly Ulrich Mühe. Wiesler is an East German Stasi (secret police) agent in East Berlin in 1984, and head of a surveillance outfit. He’s a very unlikely hero, it has to be said, and his boss, the political animal, even less so. Collectively they are working for the odious minister for culture, who is looking to uncover incriminating information on a famous playwright, and use this for his own political gains.

Wiesler begins close and complete surveillance on Dreyman the playwright (Sebastian Koch) and his partner Christa-Maria (Martina Gedeck), and the couple's lives could not be more in contrast to his own. While they are artists, creative professionals, he is a repressed, solitary man, a skilled secret police interrogator, and seemingly devoid of emotion, focussed on the job of finding any subversive element that may threaten the regime of the DDR.

However, Culture Minister Hempf (Thomas Thieme) – who is now ranked in PCMRs upper echelons of cinematic bad guys – makes a telling comment near the beginning of the movie. He points out to the playwright that although in his art he continually asserts that people can change, in reality they simply can't. This challenge – the view of the repressive culture minister – is at the core of this movie.

In 1984, Glasnost was just an inkling of an idea. Gorbachev was elected to power in the USSR that year, and a few short years later, the Berlin wall came down. Thus, the powers of the East German regime are fading in the context of this movie. The McCarthyist tendencies of the government to witch-hunt anti-establishment elements has by 1984 gone too far, and people are living in constant fear of the Stasi, who repress popular culture, and claim scalps as political currency. The impact this political regime has on the lives of people is brilliantly evoked by 'The Lives of Others' and we are effortlessly immersed in the culture and atmosphere of that time.

In another telling moment, Dreyman the playwright bashes out a piece of music on his piano, and recites a quote from Lenin. "If I kept listening to Beethoven, I wouldn’t have time for the revolution." Dreyman believes that no-one who truly hears this music could be a bad person. Meanwhile, the Stasi Agent Wiesler is in the attic, tuned in to the music and the conversation through his surveillance microphones...

This movie is considered, dramatic, and packs a real emotional punch. The performances are all subtly evoked, and the ending is as near perfect as I have seen.

Don't think of 'The Life of Others' as a sub-titled movie, think of it quite simply as a great movie. If you have a phobia of subtitles, perhaps this will not be the one to get you past that, but just think of all the movies you’ve enjoyed with subtitles ('Amelie', 'Crouching Tiger'..) and possibly make an exception in this case.

It may be a little intellectual for some peoples' tastes, but this is a really smart, dramatic stuff, and PCMR gives it a hearty recommendation.


13 comments:

Gi said...

I agree with you, this is a great movie. It took a while to understand if I actually liked it and I have to say that there's only one thing that doesn’t convince me completely: the development of Wiesler character. His beliefs are destroyed so quickly in the story that I would expect a sort of inner fighting. I thought that such and experienced Stasi Agent might try to complete his duty anyway as that wasn’t the first time he kept under surveillance “good” people. But probably this is the way he is: cold and unflappable only in the way we can see him. And maybe that was just the end of a longer loss of belief process.

reel inspiration said...

Thanks for taking the time to write this in depth review. The Lives of Others surprised me with it's theme that you can find life altering beauty in the darkest, most suppressed places. I liked it so much I included it on my best films list. If it's one of your favorites, you can vote for it at my blog.
http://reelinspiration.blogspot.com/

PaddyC said...

ri - voted, thanks for the comment.

gi - thanks for your comment. I think it's important to remember though, that the Wiesler character has lived at the sharp end of this repressive regime for a long time before the movie starts, and so he would be in a very good position to determine its effectiveness. The context of the movie is the catalyst for him to express all his doubts, set as it is against the backdrop of the last days of East Berlin.

Gold Guide for World of Warcraft said...

good post :)

Anonymous said...

Danke sehr an den Autor.

Gruss Nanna

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