Saturday, November 20, 2010

LIVES OF OTHERS (2006): Behind the Iron Curtain

The late Soviet Union only granted the writer, Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn, two real favors: (1) the government allowed him to publish One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich without a great deal of editorial tampering; and (2) the regime never had him executed.  If the remainder of Solzhenitsyn’s novels following Ivan Denisovich seemed ponderous, repetitious or clumsily written, realize they were only completed because he had to smuggle his writings out one page at a time and was never given the opportunity to proofread or rework the manuscripts before they were published.  His residence was randomly searched, so he could not leave his writings around to be discovered.  He never had the benefit of looking at preceding pages of the manuscript while he continued with his work, so he had nothing to refresh his memory as he added successive chapters.  He had to write at a hurried pace before the government discovered what he was doing.  He had to work another full-time occupation in order that he and his family could subsist.  And most importantly, he had to care about what he was doing in order to go on risking his life on a daily basis.
Lives of Others is placed in East Germany in 1984 (obviously, with George Orwell in mind) before the wall fell, but in every important respect it’s about a writer who faced the same circumstances that Solzhenitsyn did.  The dramatist, George Dreyman (Sebastian Koch), who was still allowed to work as an author under the strict guidelines of the East German Socialist regime, is shocked into political dissent when his great friend, director Albert Jerska (Volkmar Kleinert), commits suicide. Jerska had been blacklisted and not allowed to direct any plays for quite some time because the regime was uncomfortable with his methods of direction.  Dreyman, not knowing that his apartment was bugged and that all sorts of surveillance equipment had been installed in the surrounding hallways, prepares an article with the assistance of friends concerning the number of artists who had committed suicide behind the wall (like Jerska) as a result of political pressure.  The article was to be released on the other side of the wall under an anonymous name.  Captain Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Muehe) had been assigned to head up the surveillance of Dreyman.  Wiesler had been given this assignment because of past loyalty and because of outstanding adeptness at being a spy.  Wiesler not only listens into conversations regarding preparations of the article that is being prepared, he also gets the opportunity to listen into everything personal about Dreyman’s life, including the intercourse that Dreyman has with his mistress, Christa-Maria (Martina Gedek).
An amazing thing occurs to Wiesler during the course of his investigation, however.  Wiesler, after listening into what is going on at Dreyman’s place and after an accidental meeting with Christa-Maria, begins feeling a sense of uneasiness concerning this investigation.  Wiesler admires Christa-Maria both as an actress and as a person.  He also feels sorry for her because he knows she is being blackmailed into providing sexual favors to Minister Bruno Hempf (Thomas Thieme).  (Hempf could have Dreyman arrested for any reason or for no reason at all, and Christa-Maria understands this.)  Wiesler does something he has never done before, and that is to sabotage his own investigation.  He begins by leaving things out of the reports he is to give to his superior, Colonel Grubitz (Ulrich Tukur).  (For example, the article that Dreyman was preparing is described in the reports as a play regarding the struggles of Vladimir Lenin.)  Wiesler discovers how Dreyman’s article is to be delivered to the West for publication, but he does nothing to stop it.  Grubitz suspects that Dreyman was the author of the article, but Wiesler does not confirm that this is the case.  Wiesler is ordered to interrogate Christa-Maria, and she reveals where Dreyman’s typewriter is hidden.  However, before Grubitz can find the typewriter, Wiesler enters Dreyman’s apartment and removes it.
Not everything goes as Wiesler had planned, however.  The cat and mouse game had some unfortunate consequences.  Christa-Maria, not knowing of Wiesler’s actions concerning the typewriter and feeling guilty over her betrayal of Dreyman, commits suicide by stepping in front of a truck.  Dreyman, never becoming aware of Christa-Maria’s betrayal, blames himself for everything that happened.  Grubitz decides to end the investigation and drop all charges against Dreyman, but he is now certain (but without proof) that Wiesler is behind the disappearance of the typewriter.  Wiesler is then punished by being assigned a mindless job that he is ordered to perform for the remainder of his life.  Fortunately for Wiesler, the wall fell soon after this and he was free to once again pursue his thoughts, but he never again would be in a position of authority.  Dreyman, having discovered the favor that Wiesler had done for him, then published his greatest work and dedicated it to no other than Wiesler.
A German moviemaker with the improbable name of Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck directed Lives of Others.  This was von Donnersmark’s directorial debut, though you would never know it by the scope of this movie’s theme.  In essence, Lives of Others was a summing up of the 20th Century from the point of view of someone living behind the Iron Curtain.  Since it does concern East Germany, a nation under the thumb of totalitarianism  - first under Hitler and then under Soviet control - it is only right that Joseph Stalin should be quoted in the movie.  The great tyrant referred to writers as “engineers of the human soul.”  Stalin’s implication was that a writer’s practical purpose was to control rather than to free the human mind.  It’s fascinating that the head of such a government, that espoused idealistic notions about rule of the proletariat and equal rights of the workingman, could be reduced to such cynicism.  For though what Stalin stated may have been correct toward morally timid people, it was not applicable to individuals such as Dreyman.  Nor was it applicable towards Wiesler.  Most critics have gotten it wrong when they state that agent Wiesler was too intelligent to fit into this repressive system.  Self-preservation, the prudent course for most men, interested neither Dreyman nor Wiesler.  In truth, what really got Wiesler into trouble was a developing sense of decency.  Under a system of government that honored only a way of thinking that was in entire agreement with official policy, this defied all sense of prudence.  Dreyman and Wiesler were above the kind of collectivism represented in East Germany that required its officials and citizens to constantly degrade themselves to survive. 
So what does greatness consist of?  Going back to the subject of Solzhenitsyn, towards the end of World War II this writer was sentenced to eight years of imprisonment for making a joke about Stalin.  Following his imprisonment, Solzhenitsyn spent another four or five years in exile until his “rehabilitation” in 1957.  Rather than learn his lesson from this earlier punishment, he made things worse for himself almost by deliberation.  During the mid 1960s, his work was denied publication in the Soviet Union because of the subversive nature of his writing.  He did not travel to Stockholm in 1970 to receive his Nobel Prize for fear that he would not be allowed to return to his country.  That he wished to remain in Russia showed his love and devotion for his native land because most in his position would have welcomed the opportunity to take leave from his country’s problems.  Nevertheless, he was expulsed from the Soviet Writers Union in 1969 after two novels critical of the Soviet regime were published in the West, and he was deported to West Germany in 1974 for “treason” after The Gulag Archipelago was released.  Most “intelligent” individuals would have played their part much differently and looked for any excuse to walk out on any necessity.   Amazingly, after four years of military service during World War II, imprisonment, exile, deportation and a bout with cancer, Solzhenitsyn, now approaching 90, is still alive.  Many of his contemporaries are not.
Dreyman, like Solzhenitsyn, could walk with his head high, but the only reason he survived was because of luck and the assistance of other individuals like Wiesler.  As it was Dreyman paid an extremely high price by losing the woman he loved, but he could just as easily have lost his own life as well.  Everything in Lives of Others is gray, befitting the atmosphere of the socialist regime in East Germany.  (Individuals I have known who have visited East Germany before and even after the wall had fallen have mentioned this grayness.)  Christa-Maria constantly feels the need to shower because of the sense of uncleanliness that pervades everything.  Only Dreyman and his writing, Christa-Maria and her fragility, and Jerska and his music give the surroundings any feeling of aliveness.  In the end, for both Christa-Maria and for Jerska, the grayness made them suicidal.
Though Lives of Others won the Oscar for Best Foreign film, it was not as good as Pan’s LabyrinthPan’s Labyrinth more forcibly brought across the colorfulness and freedom of a small girl’s mind.  Even so, Lives of Others is still superior to any American film that was released in the United States during 2006.  Americans have become occupied with trivialities and need to see a movie like this to appreciate the larger picture.  Lives of Others tells the story of talented and discontented individuals who achieved singularity by not tying their identity to a bureaucratic regime that extolled a series of idealistic platitudes.  The platitudes in this Eastern European nation, though meaningless, in most cases were considered sacred.  But because of resistance to conform to the "sacred" standards by individuals like Dreyman and Wiesler, the two heroes in this movie are large and very real human beings.
March 15, 2007
© Robert S. Miller 2007

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