Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Das Leben der Anderen, The lives of others: reminds us why we are praising the European cinema

The Life of Others is a German film directed, written and co-produced by the so far unknown Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. It has all the good qualities of a European film. The script even though it refers to a dramatic historical period the last years before the destruction of the wall at Berlin manages to focus on the lives of few people. It has a slow pace that doesn’t tire the spectator but allows him to really get to know the characters and to think on the issues the film presents. Intense colors are missing from the images emphasizing the harsh living conditions. The framing is carefully done and the whole aesthetics of the film reminds us the photographic art of the past.

The script is very good. A spy of the Stagi is commissioned to spy on a theatrical writer and his girlfriend, an actress. He thinks that they ordered him to do this because the writer has ideas against the government. Soon though he realizes that a minister is in love with the actress and he hopes in this way to get rid of his rival. As time goes by the spy gets more and more involve into the lives of the people he spies. He comes to appreciate their ideas their art and the love they share. Eventually instead of doing his job, he protects them and tries to help them by lying to his superiors.

The film is so thick of ideas that I feel overwhelmed in trying to explain and discuss all of them. Still I’ll make an effort to analyze the one that seem more important to me. In order to be able to discuss this film correctly one would have to see it many times and probably keep notes.

The spy is a man who lives alone isolated by the others without love and without thoughts. He has been trained not to think but only to obey his orders and execute them well. Under these circumstances the first think that gets his attention and sympathy from the people he watches is their love and companionship. In his eyes, their feelings and sincerity worth more that the lust of the minister he is forced to serve. The second think that moves him is art as a way of expression of feelings and thoughts. When the writer plays at his piano the Symphony for a good man and tells that no one who can really hear and appreciate this music can be bad the spy is seduced. In this music he recognizes not only beauty but pure emotion. As his life is completely devoid of beauty and feeling he comes to realize that he has to protect these things.

Moreover, the film demonstrates that a regime of oppression breaks the human spirit. People might still be able to go on with our lives, work, earn money, be comfortable economically but the oppression manages to intrude into their most private sides of their lives, into their thinking and into their feeling. The artists are the ones that are both the most dangerous for a regime of repression and the ones that are the most vulnerable to this system. On one hand by their art they can overrule the regime. On the other hand by being forbidden to have an audience or by being secluded and intimidated they don’t have the psychological strength to produce art. The power of art is immense. It can win people over and it can destabilize the government and change history.

Even if the film is quite emotional it manages to escape the melodrama. Subtle moves and expressions of the actors convey all the intense feelings. I appreciate enormously that the film chose a more ingenious end than the one that was obvious and probably be more emotionally satisfying for the spectators. When the writer discovers that he had been protected by the spy instead of meeting him personally he writes a book about the story and dedicates it to him. At this point the spectators feverishly wish a meeting and a dialogue between those men whose life had been so interconnected. They want the moral and emotional satisfaction that a dialogue between these would insure. Instead the director never presents this meeting on the screen. Instead for going for the easy clean-cut ending he prefers a more insinuating one but a fitting one. The spy chose not only to protect these people for their lives and personalities. He chose to protect them for their potential to create art. This is fairly obvious in his discussion with his superior. His superior presents him with his student’s essay about how artist should be dealt by the regime. He tells him that a period of enforced seclusion without physical torture breaks their spirit. The artist that has been treated in this way when they were set free they never tried to create anything again. This would be the future that would be installed for the writer. The spy when he hears all this he chooses to conceal his true report and create a false one. His best reward, therefore, is this new book of the writer.

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