A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Friday, January 20, 2017

The Lives of Others (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, 2006)

Amid the almost universal acclaim, including a best foreign-language film Oscar, for Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's The Lives of Others, there were some complaints from residents of the former East Germany that the writer-director was not as hard on his Stasi snoop, Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe), as he should have been. This is my second viewing of the film -- I saw it when it first appeared on DVD -- and I tend to agree. The movie as a whole is chilling -- well-plotted and well-acted -- but I'm not entirely convinced this time around by Wiesler's change of heart regarding the people he's surveiling: the playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) and his lover, the actress Christa-Marie Sieland (Martina Gedeck). At the start of the film, when we first see Wiesler teaching a class to Stasi-spy hopefuls, he's the perfect cold gray participant in a monstrous system of internal domestic espionage. But later, as he learns not only that the motive for spying on Dreyman and Sieland is not merely political but also sexual -- the minister of culture, Bruno Hempf (Thomas Theime) wants Dreyman eliminated so he can have Sieland all to himself -- he begins to be disillusioned with his work. And after a friend of Dreyman's, the blacklisted theater director Albert Jerska (Volkmar Kleinert), commits suicide and Dreyman sits down at the piano to play a piece of music -- composed for the film by Gabriel Yared -- called Sonata for a Good Man that Jerska had given him, Wiesler betrays the first real emotion we see from him in the film: A tear rolls down his cold gray face. Donnersmarck has said that he was inspired by Lenin's statement -- referred to in one point in the film -- that he had to give up listening to music like Beethoven's "Appassionata" sonata because it humanized him, distracting him from the task of revolution. On the other hand, we have all heard the stories of Nazi concentration camp commandants who read Schiller and Goethe and listened to Mozart and Schubert and were never deterred from their horrendous work by it. The flaw in Donnersmarck's film, I think, is that despite Mühe's brilliant performance as Wiesler, we never get enough of his backstory to suggest why he should be suddenly so vulnerable to sentiment. How could he have risen in the ranks of the Stasi to the point that he became not only a trusted agent but also an instructor of future agents if he has this key weakness? On the other hand, it's not a crippling flaw, thanks to exceptional performances and well-handled suspense.

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