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7 June 2007 Edition

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Film review : Surveillance story has deep roots in the history of cinema

Other bloody people

Film Review
The Lives of Others
By Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck

Hell is. Love is. The future is. Other bloody people, and thank the Lord for that.  The Lives of Others is a film about a man who looks at other people, professionally and therefore, the assumption is, dispassionately.  He merely records data and passes it on. The people involved are none of his business. There is a clear line between business and pleasure and a clear distinction between business and passion. For the popular story-teller this line is made to be crossed. Where there is business there is corruption; where there is passion there must be transgression and all roads must lead us back – in memory and to the scene of the crime.
The surveillance story has deep roots in the history of cinema, they share a common ancestry in the irresistible desire to look at other people.  They also both share the desire to watch other people having sex and the feelings of unavoidable guilt, or anxiety about being found out, that go along with that. The surveillance film has spread its seeds in every direction – the spy film, the psychological thriller, film noir, the conspiracy film and the stakeout movie. It also has an (un)canny capacity to change it’s shape and clothes to fit the mood of the times.  At times of political anxiety the surveillance film can be relied upon to re-emerge.  Recent times have seen such films appearing in Britain (Red Road, Straightheads), in France (Hidden), and the United States (Syrians, Goodnight and Good Luck).  The Lives of Others is a highly superior example of this particular vintage.
The film, which was originally entitled 1985, takes place during that period in the former German Democratic Republic.  It tells the story of a skilled and clinical Stasi surveillance operative Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Muhe). When his fat, ugly boss Bruno Hempf (Thomas Thieme) develops an unhealthy interest in a leading theatre actress – Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck) – Wiesler is dispatched to set up constant surveillance on Sieland’s lover – the playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) who appears to be almost unnaturally loyal to the regime.
The story unfolds as an architect’s design, echoed by the chalk floor plan Wiesler sketches out on the boards of the attic above Dreyman’s apartment.  It is plotted with the control and craft of a Dostoyevsky novel as von Donnersmarck’s elegant script (apparently he withdraws to a monastery in order write his scripts, a practice which seems to be reflected in this piece’s reflective tone) inscribes the three broad paths which may be taken through life. The pure satisfaction of ego and appetite represented by Hempf, and in part at least, by Christa. The nihilistic pragmatism of following political ideology represented by Wiesler and the writer’s friends who try to persuade him to speak out against the state.  And finally there is the favoured route of devotion to the spiritual path, the singular commitment to pure aesthetics represented here by the blacklisted theatre director Albert Jerska (Volkmar Kleinert).  Inevitably Jerska’s heightened sensibilities force him into self-sacrifice on the high altar of romanticism.
Above all else this film is romantic. It seduces the viewer into a sumptuous sensory experience. The cinematography reflects an East Germany as Caravaggio might have seen it. The principal actors are melancholic and beautiful, Martina Gedeck offers perhaps the most grown up version of a sexually potent woman seen in recent cinema, and of course for this her character must be punished. The soundtrack, by Gabriel Yared, swoops and falls and incorporates us into its classical sense of gravitas, this is clearly a serious piece.
Unfortunately, there lies the problem. The Lives of Others is beautifully crafted but ultimately empty and disinterested in the others.  The film is very clever in setting up a series of secret corridors, hiding places, priest holes and rooms full of dusty files but ultimately all of them end up in blind alleys, one way streets and suburban cul de sacs until there is a distinct smell, of ham and herring.  It isn’t really a film about surveillance, or East Germany or the fall of communism.  It is much more Hitchcockian than that, and all of these serious themes feel like a lot of McGuffins.
The Lives of Others isn’t even about Wiesler, he doesn’t really change, he remains a stoic outsider, a loyal retainer, a follower and an underling.  His roots are more in the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm than the social realist cinema of the Brothers Dardennes.  When Wiesler acts he does so to serve the demands of plot design.  There is no sense that he is seduced by love or lust for Christa or indeed Dreyman. He is clearly their inferior and there is no danger at any point in the story of him getting above his station. Indeed the result of his actions are his demotion to the even lower orders of administration and ultimately to a free-market free paper round.
This is a film about the superiority of the artist.  A writer who creates a role for his lover.  She dies and is replaced, in a new production of the play after the wall has come down, by a black woman.  He writes a book called Sonata for a good man and writes a small acknowledgement of a smaller man. The smaller man looks grateful and spends some of his paper round money on a hardback copy of the book.  The Lives of Others stimulates the senses but when I thought  about it afterwards it left a sour taste in my mouth and made me feel uncomfortable. Like I’d been spying on other people.  I might not like what he has to say but Florian Henckel von Donnermarck is very good at his job.

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