I finally got round to watching ‘The Lives of Others’ on DVD. (Spoilers! Spoilers!) It has an extremely clever conceit. A Stasi captain is ordered to spy on an apparently ideologically sound writer. The writer slowly moves towards dissidence, while the captain becomes entranced by the writer’s life and lover – and decides to protect them. As the writer abandons socialist plays for underground journalism, the Stasi captain starts fabricating his reports – writing, in effect, ideologically sound plays under cover of reporting. It’s a very neat reversal.
But what a load of tosh it is. The film has nothing beyond this conceit: no emotion, no well-drawn characters, no political insight, no sense (to me) of what life was like in East Germany under Communism. Instead it has muted colours, mournful music, tasteful lovemaking, lots of closed-face acting: all the cinematic markers of subtlety and nuance – but without anything approaching subtlety or nuance. It’s melodrama for the refined; it’s ‘The Remains of the Day’, but with the secret police instead of an English country house as the institution in the service of which our hero’s emotions are suppressed.
Nothing this schematic can ever carry truth. By the end it just gets silly, as the distance between the clunking plot and the ‘artistic’ style becomes intolerable. The moment at which our writer realises what’s been going on is like something out of a bad detective serial. In the final scene, the now-ex Stasi captain buys a book the grateful writer has dedicated to him. “Would you like it wrapped?” asks the surly aesthete shop assistant. “No. It’s for me.” Get it? For him! Because it’s both for his own consumption and written with him in mind. Double meanings haven’t come this sophisticated since ‘why the long face?’
A few more irritations.
1) Haven’t we all become a bit tired of the ‘women as betrayers’ theme? Wouldn’t it be nice to see a film in which the female love interest doesn’t simply oscillate between idealised object of affection and untrustworthy, unfaithful deceiver? For that matter, wouldn’t it be nice if the viewer’s attitude to her rape wasn’t doubly mediated, first through her possessive lover, then through a secret policeman’s sympathy for her lover? The character’s own perspective on her brutalisation (yes, I know what the word means) is never explored. ‘The Lives of Others’ riffs fairly heavily on ‘The Conversation’ – and while it’s not as solipsistic as that film (nor as accomplished) it shares a perspective: grounded in a solitary, compromised, lonely man’s reflection on his own isolation. Yeah, sure, it pushes my buttons. But can’t we move on?
2) Does anyone think this film is at all realistic? Isn’t it plainly ludicrous? Bear in mind that this Stasi guy has built his career on his expertise in torture. And then he suddenly sees the light because he reads some Brecht and plays peeping tom on a couple of lovers? For that matter, isn’t our playwright’s persona and personality wholly out of tune with his conformism? Is this really the kind of state-acclaimed playwright we’d meet in ‘80s East Germany? He seems more like the louche product of Western bohemianism. And why, once our Stasi protagonist is exposed, is he not himself tortured or murdered? I admit to knowing absolutely nothing about life behind the Berlin wall. But all this seems highly implausible.
3) Don’t get me started on the film’s attitude to art. In one particularly saccharine scene, the writer plays a tune called ‘Sonata for a Good Man’ on his piano, while the Stasi captain listens in. “Is it possible for anyone who has heard, I mean really heard this music to be a wholly bad man?” the writer asks. [I may not have the quote right. The film has just been returned to the video store, never to be re-rented.] Cut to the Stasi captain, with tears running down his face. Very affecting. Except that – isn’t the widely acknowledged fact that appreciation of the greatest art has never prevented active engagement in atrocity a problem so familiar as to have become cliché? Isn’t this problem worth engaging with? But as usual, an opening of the mind to great art is portrayed as going hand in hand with a rejection of cruelty – which is a reassuring fantasy, but a fantasy nonetheless.
4) So here’s the problem. By focussing on the exception, rather than the rule… by focussing on a ‘good’ Stasi captain who helped his victims (and, by the way, is there even one documented case of a story anything like that depicted in ‘The Lives of Others’?)… by focussing on the exception – which isn’t even a realistically depicted exception – and by providing an uplifting narrative (in a sufficiently sombre style to count as art), the film totally relinquishes any ambition to examine how the institutions and social structures of communist East Germany actually affected the lives of its citizens. This is a fable, basically. And it’s dishonest because it presents itself as an engagement with recent history.
So: I’m disappointed by ‘The Lives of Others’. (More considered complaints can be found here). To change the subject – I now have my hopes fixed on ‘The Wire’, which absolutely everyone in the world tells me is the best thing ever. I still haven’t watched a single episode. But I’ve done a lot of googling – oh yes! – and how many T.V. producers do you know who say things like this? (David Simon, The Wire’s creator, is complaining about the way race tends to dominate discussion of the show).
“I’m not particularly interested in race as a point of discussion and in fact, I think The Wire speaks to sociopolitics, economics and issues of class more than race. Even when the racial aspect is referenced in the plotting, it is usually in a manner that mocks someone’s over-obsession with it, or messes with someone’s racial preconceptions.
This is not to say that racism isn’t a residual problem in this country and will not remain a problem for a long time to come. But what really ails America, in my opinion, is this: Raw unencumbered capitalism is an economic force and a potent one. But it is not social policy and amid a political culture of greed and selfishness, it is being made to substitute for social policy. The rich get richer, the poor get fucked, and the middle class of this country – the union-wage consumer class that constituted the economic strength of postwar America – is fast disappearing as the need for union-wage work disappears.
Raw capitalism – absent the moderating aspect of a political system that cares for the great mass of voters (or non-voters) who uphold that system – is not good for most of us. It is great for a few of us. We are building only the America that we are paying for, and ultimately, it is going to be an ugly place, much like the city-state depicted in The Wire. So when Congress fails to raise the minimum wage for the first time in fifteen years because they will do so only if at the same time they can eliminate an estate tax for the wealthiest 8000 families in the country, as they did this month, I at least manage a smile to know that the content of my little television drama is not the stuff of hyperbole; if anything we’ve been gentle about what the American future is.
Race and race-consciousness – which seems to occupy so many viewers, black and white – seems almost beside the point when all of us, regardless of our melanin, are being subjected to such diminished opportunities and when the political structure is so indifferent to the social and economic fabric of the nation as a whole. I guess the more they keep us arguing about such chicken-and-egg stuff as say, whether crime is the result of individual failures of responsibility – nature – or whether it results from denial of opportunity and societal dysfunction – nurture – the less time we spend examining who is marginalizing whom in this country and to what possible and profitable end. Yet whether Stringer Bell was born a bad guy or was made a bad guy by events seems to be what viewers want to debate endlessly.
The answer, I would suggest, is that he was both and I offer that answer in the hope that such horseshit debates about good-versus-evil and whether or not all these crazy ghetto Negros in Baltimore are depraved or deprived can be discarded in favor of a discussion about why there are still entrenched ghettos (black, Hispanic, and yes, white, now that the union wages are gone) in a city that was once a great port and manufacturing centre within the greatest economic power the world had ever seen.”
Wow. Now if only the show’s good.