Jarv’s Best of 2000-2009. Number 2: The Lives of Others
The Lives of Others was a cause célèbre in Geek circles. Well, rather it being awarded the Oscar over Pan’s Labyrinth was. There was a huge amount of wailing and gnashing of teeth from the basement dwellers that populate boards such as AICN. However, in this case, as is so often true of them, they were talking (moaning) absolute nonsense. They were, being nice, ill-informed as very few people had actually seen this film before the Oscar. If they had, then they would know that this is the better film. In fact, it is Mrs. Jarv’s pick for Number 1.
Occasionally, and I am loathe to say this, but the Academy do award the right film. I’m not trying to defend the idiocy of awarding Titanic or Crash best film, but when it comes to the foreign language gong, most of the time the best foreign language film of the year wins it. In the 21st century alone, the prize has gone to several worthy films (with a few howling omissions- City of God being the prime example) but none more worthy than this one.
Germany has had an interesting 21st Century so far. I know the concept of collective guilt has, as time has passed, gradually ceased to be so dominant, but there seems to be a whole generation of film-makers intent on mining Germany’s less than noble history for dramatic effect. 3 of my favourite films of the 21st Century are German and all 3 of them deal with parts of history that most other nations would shy away from. This is arguably the premier film of the three, and one of the premier films of the decade.
The Lives of Others is amongst other things, about the act of observation. The protagonist is a middle ranking Stasi officer (Wiesler), who, in a culture rife with suspicion, believes that an ardent pro-Communist playwright (Dreyman) must have something to hide. He sets up a surveillance on the playwright and in the course of observing him finds that his own personality changes, because his own miserably empty life is put into context. The end, when it comes is devastating, but the aftermath is uplifting, touching, and a hymn to humanity. This is, without a shadow of a doubt, a wonderful film.
It is vital to note that both Dreyman and Wiesler himself are true believers in Socialism- neither is corrupt, and neither is a traitor. Weisler believes himself to be “the shield” protecting Socialist Germany from decadent capitalism and as such is easy to manipulate. Dreyman on the other hand believes wholly in Socialism, he repeatedly rejects attempts to sway him into a critical position, and when he does make the leap it is as a direct consequence of the suicide of one of his closest friends. Both these men change due to events in the film- Dreyman because of outside events, and Wiesler because of his burgeoning empathy and sympathy for Dreyman.
Wiesler is, and I’m not understating this, a hugely complex character. He volunteers for the surveillance because he believes that Dreyman must have something to hide. He is not a careerist, more a soldier following orders. His life outside of the Stasi is empty. He has no friends, and no human contact aside from the occasional visit from a prostitute. He is not the villain of the film. Dreyman, on the other hand, is a flamboyant idealist, he’s caught in a crisis of indecision between loyalty to his friends and his own belief in Socialism. He’s kind, and weak, but he is not the villain either. Rather the villains of this film are the high-ranking Stasi officers, personified by the unscrupulous Grubitz, and the odious Minister Hempf. These are outright moustache twirling villains, Hempf’s gloating to Dreyman being particularly obnoxious, and it’s sorry to say that both emerge unscathed. No such kindness is given to Dreyman and Wiesler, although arguably the coda serves as a reward to both characters.
The performances in this film are all superb- particularly Martina Gedeck as Christa-Maria (the victim of the piece) and (above all else) Ulrich Muhe as Weisler. His is a multi-layered performance that is brutal and unsparing. Jealousy flirts with pity and dedication across his face, and although he does finish the film a broken man, the final shot of him with a look of happiness and satisfaction elevates the film above the bleak and miserable.
When I studied English at University (bear with me), we spent a significant amount of time studying the various themes of tragedy. One of the theories (a plague on the 90’s) that we were inflicted with was that of the tragic fall. For an effective tragedy, so the argument goes, there must be a central character that suffers a severe fall, leading to a cathartic release and the possibility of redemption. This is, of course, hogwash. The great tragedies of history usually end with a bloodbath, and the fallen character can usually be found amongst the dead. This film is, I believe, the exception that proves the rule. Wiesler’s fall is tragic, and the possibility of redemption is realised in his attempts to save Dreyman, but the moment of catharsis comes in the coda- it fits the theory, even if I struggle to thing of another Tragedy that would do.
The Lives of Others is a fabulous film. It’s depressing and uplifting simultaneously, hangs complex themes effortlessly on a simple story and is wonderfully acted and directed. It’s a brutal and unflinching film, and is a film that is more than the some of its parts.
Moving without being manipulative, devastating without being depressing- The Lives of Others is my pick for 2nd best film of the decade, and a proud addition to any list.
Next up is number 1. I won’t name it here, but anyone that knows me or has read these lists should be able to guess what it is. And, no, it isn’t Irreversible.
The Top 10, along with other lists, can be found here.
7: The Descent
6: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
5: This is England.
4: Requiem for a Dream
3: Battle Royale