November 10, 2007

‘The Lives of Others’ Rant. (‘The Wire’ Addendum).

Filed under: Uncategorized — duncan @ 8:26 pm

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.


  1. Well, that is a bit harsh. You acknowledge the neatness of the conceit, but then seem to expect that the film will be realistic. But such a neat conceit doesn’t lend itself to all to realistic storytelling. It needs the symmetry and double meaning that can come with melodrama and overt structure. The stuff you took to be “cinematic markers of subtlety and nuance” felt to be more like the standard drabness one would expect from a Hollywood-plus depiction of life under communism.

    I thought the Wire was supposed to be rubbish?

    Comment by RobS — November 13, 2007 @ 9:35 pm

  2. “I thought the Wire was supposed to be rubbish?”

    I’m fighting convention. I’m a young contrarian.

    Re: the Lives of Others. Obviously this isn’t any kind of carefully considered critique. But still…

    “such a neat conceit doesn’t lend itself at all to realistic storytelling”. Which is the whole problem. The film’s telling a story about recent history, and distorting history to fit its conceit.

    This distortion is ideologically motivated. ‘The Lives of Others’ lies: sometimes overtly, sometimes not. Apparently insignificant example: in the early teaching scene (when Wiesler is playing the torture recordings) his students are wearing civilian clothes. False – they would have been in uniform. Timothy Garton Ash points this out in his New York Review of Books piece, and asks von Donnersmarck about it. “While fiercely defending the basic historical accuracy of the film, he immediately agreed that some details were deliberately altered for dramatic effect. Thus, he explained, if he had shown the Stasi cadets in uniform, no ordinary cinemagoer would have identified with them. But because he shows them (inaccurately) in student-type civilian dress and has one of them (implausibly) ask a naïve question to the effect of ‘isn’t bullying [?] people in interrogations wrong?’, the viewer can identify with them and is drawn into the story. He argues that in a movie the reality always has to be verdichtet, a word which means thickened, concentrated, intensified, but carries a verbal association with Dichtung, meaning poetry or, more broadly, fiction.”

    The stuff about verdichtet sounds good. But this is the whole issue of the film in a nutshell. To begin with, what’s with the idea that we won’t identify with people who aren’t wearing civilian clothes? What kind of liberal hegemony is behind the idea that casual-wear is a prerequisite for audience sympathy? But putting that aside, we have here a key scene depicting indoctrination into the secret police – and it suggests that Stasi cadets existed in splendid isolation from the East German social and political system. This scene, in which new Stasi recruits are apparently unaware that they might be required to torture people, is ridiculous. Donnersmarck isn’t ‘intensifying’ reality for storytelling purposes; he’s diminishing reality, the better to advance his ideological agenda.

    Googling, I came across the New York Times review, which praises “this supremely intelligent, unfailingly honest movie.” The review ends like this:

    “Georg and Captain Wiesler, though they occasionally waver and worry, remain true to their essential natures, and thus embody the film’s deepest, most challenging paradox: people don’t change, and yet the world does.” We remain true to our essential natures – social systems have no effect on our deepest selves – compromise with the system isn’t a product of economic or physical necessity, it’s a failure of integrity. What nonsense… but this nonsense informs every aspect of the film.

    This is why the Christa-Maria Sieland story is so important. Sieland is the only main character who ends up compromising with the system. She betrays Dreyer, in order to preserve her career. Sieland, then, is the character with whom we should be identifying if we want to understand the real effects of a torture-based police state on its citizens. But we are never invited to identify with Sieland. Sieland functions throughout as an object of desire (it’s a couple weeks since I’ve seen the film now, but as I recall she spends most of her screen-time in the shower) and as a plot device. In the crucial scene in which she capitulates and reveals the location of the typewriter, we see everything through Wiesler’s eyes. All the scene’s dramatic tension comes from the question – “will Wiesler’s cover be blown?” Wiesler, recall, has already broken every rule in the secret-policeman’s handbook by talking to Sieland directly. He implores her not to prostitute herself to the culture minister, and Sieland follows his advice. But since the whole point of Wiesler’s investigation of Dreyer was to make Sieland more sexually available to the minister, this intervention is going to end badly. And it does – not for Wiesler, or Dreyer, but for Sieland. Having personally told Sieland not to compromise, Wiesler then has to interrogate Sieland himself. If this interrogation fails, Wiesler is in deep shit. So Wiesler does everything he can to make Sieland talk. And when he succeeds this is presented not as Wiesler’s failure and betrayal, but as Sieland’s. We’re meant to be rooting for Wiesler! Once Wiesler knows where the typewriter is, he goes and steals it so that Dreyer isn’t arrested. And this is the height of Wiesler’s ideological liberation – proof of his moral integrity. Of course in the immediately following scene we are shown Sieland a broken woman, thoroughly in the power of a loathsome Stasi official. A few scenes later, she kills herself. We’re then treated to the stricken grief of Dreyer, and the manfully muted grief of Wiesler. But Sieland’s own anguish isn’t part of the story.

    This is sickening. Just to be clear: Wiesler has personally destroyed Sieland’s life – first by telling her not to compromise with the system (unbelievably naïve advice), then by forcing her to compromise with the system by threatening her with the destruction of her livelihood if she doesn’t. (And let’s not forget that anyone taken in for questioning by the Stasi knows perfectly well that if they don’t comply with their demands they’re likely to be tortured.) The most loathsome thing about this interrogation scene is that Sieland is presented as practically eager to betray her lover. Try re-imagining the film if, at this crucial moment, Sieland refused to reveal the location of the typewriter. Presumably Wiesler would then have been forced to go ahead and torture her – sleep deprivation, threats against her loved ones, the works. This scenario would utterly destroy the film’s moral algebra, which is entirely based on portraying Sieland as inherently duplicitous – compromised in her own deepest personality, through personal weakness. And this is part and parcel of the film’s emphasis on individual conscience rather than systemic coercion. There’s thus a complicity between the movie’s liberalism and the police state it supposedly depicts. The corollary of liberalism’s emphasis on individual choice is that the victim is at fault. At the end of the film, when Dreyer reads his Stasi file and discovers what happened, he is shocked to learn that Sieland betrayed him. In response to which, he dedicates a book to Wiesler – the man whose advice and interrogation directly led to this betrayal – a book called ‘Sonata for a Good Man’. Jesus fucking Christ! Why does anyone like this film? The whole thing’s a horror show.

    Anyway. “The stuff you took to be ‘cinematic markers of subtlety and nuance’ felt to be more like the standard drabness one would expect from a Hollywood-plus depiction of life under comunism.” Well yeah. But I also think that part of the function of the film’s style is to scream understatement. It must be subtle – it’s got shots of bare trees against grey skies. It must have a sophisticated concept of character – just look how muted its protagonist’s expressions of emotion are. Certainly the critical response to the movie has been characterised by praise for its sophistication and subtlety. I mean – this isn’t a film that’s praised for its entertainingly cartoonish invention of a fabulously unrealistic alternative East Germany. It’s praised for its subtlety, realism, moral rigour, etc. And very widely praised.

    Finally, the movie is naff independent of politics. That thumb-print on the transcript belongs in ‘Murder She Wrote’. But I guess I wouldn’t have an issue with that if I thought the rest of the film was any good. Who doesn’t like ‘Murder She Wrote’?

    I’ve a nasty feeling this comment is completely unclear / incoherent. I haven’t thought this stuff through properly, and I know nothing about East Germany. I wouldn’t want to suggest that heroism and independence of conscience are impossible in a totalitarian state. I just think that ‘The Lives of Others’ totally misrepresents what that heroism would (and did) consist in. Its theme is the relation between the individual soul and an oppressive social system – but it fails to properly examine the sordid compromises that constitute everyone’s soul, yours, mine, Wiesler’s, Sieland’s. This is nowhere clearer in its complete lack of sympathy for Sieland – a lack of sympathy that is particularly culpable given that the film’s hero is a card-carrying torturer, who deploys his interrogation expertise on, among others, Sieland.

    But I probably shouldn’t post my off-the-cuff reactions to movies – especially when I know next to nothing about the movies’ subjects.

    Comment by praxisblog — November 17, 2007 @ 8:31 pm

  3. Interesting that you pick out the beginning scene, which I thought was one of the best in the film as well as being an early indication that we were not in the land of historical realism. A sinister instructor is lecturing a bunch of American-looking, preppy kids on interrogation technique. For me, the absence of uniforms is not deceptive. Even if we don’t put our fingers on the inaccuracy, there is an air of real strangeness about the scene that tells us something is being suggested, and it’s partly through this that von Donnersmarck is able to introduce a theme of the film (crudely put, that Stasi members originate from the same stock of common humanity as those on the other side of the wall).

    Maybe I should state my view that history, including recent events, should be plundered and messed around with pretty freely for certain fictional purposes. You can say: why not simply invent a whole new world, if you do not wish to make specific points about some time and place? But then you end up with Lord of the Rings or 1984, in which one is so bombarded with authorial decisions (why are some of the characters trees, why the strange name Mustapha Mond etc etc), that it is difficult to put your finger on which part of the fiction is actually important, and then the point of the work becomes simply the new world that it creates (not that there’s anything wrong in this). By being guided by reality at least in part, the questions and themes which are really compelling for the creator can be sharply isolated. These could be entirely general (for example that people can, in von Donnersmarck’s words, “do the right thing, no matter how far they have gone down the wrong path”), not about a specific part of history.

    But why am I defending the film, really? To be honest, it’s not because I liked its moral viewpoint, or because I thought it taught me about anything. It’s because of the skill with which the fictional ‘thickening’ was done, and how effectively the film led me emotionally (that is, very effectively). Maybe The Lives of Others could have been greater if it engaged with real history more, and if Sieland was treated as more than a device — I think this is quite likely — but it really is rare for a film to succeed in exerting such calculated control over such unashamedly dramatic material, and that is worth a lot. One of the things I liked about it was that it took elements that ought to have been winceful, like the book dedication and the kid in the lift, and against the odds it made them work. All that said, though, the nature of the spell seems quite fragile, especially in the light of your criticisms. So I am afraid of seeing The Lives of Others again.

    Comment by RobS — November 19, 2007 @ 6:06 pm

  4. You make good points. I am perhaps being too harsh on the film for its departures from reality. I obviously don’t think that all art ought to be realistic. Indeed I’m not sure that there is such a thing as ‘realism’ independent of generic conventions, aesthetic emphases, etc. And your take on the lecture scene is persuasive. So it’s certainly not as simple as ‘The Lives of Others’ misrepresents communist East Germany. It’s more that I didn’t like the way in which it did so; I didn’t like its fictional world.

    Perhaps part of the reason for my dissatisfaction is that the film didn’t lead me effectively emotionally – and I’m not sure this has much to do with (what I see as) its political or moral failures. I felt turned off by how schematic and artificial it was – I wasn’t engaged, or moved. For the first half hour or so I expected it to deepen and draw me in; but instead I got increasingly annoyed. It reminds me of a comment Kingsley Amis made, reading or reviewing some book (I don’t have the quote). He kept saying out loud, to the pages, “no he didn’t”; “that is NOT what happened”; “she certainly did NOT say that!” This was pretty much my response to the second half of the film.

    Which obviously doesn’t aim to diminish its aesthetic or emotional power if for you, and many people, it had that power. But it didn’t work for me.

    Got to go. Internet cafe.

    Comment by praxisblog — November 19, 2007 @ 8:21 pm

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