Friday, February 16, 2007

Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, The Lives of Others, 2007

Imagine if The Lives of Others, Germany's contender for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, was set not in Berlin, 1984, but Berlin, 1944. We have before us three moving pieces: an artist pure-of-heart, a government official who is pure ambition and evil, and a man trapped in between -- a bureaucrat with an artists's soul. The artist scorns the Nazi regime, but his art ruffles no feathers, and so he is allowed to prosper. The evil government official, though, is out to get him, due not to personal animus but to a contrived plotline that we can ignore. What matters is that the State hates Art. But our middleman -- our Nazi-with-a-soul -- is charged with actually bringing the artist down. This he is well-qualified to do, since he has done it so many times, and so well, that he moonlights as a professor of torture and interrogation.

This time, though, something's different. The Soulful Nazi, surveilling the artist -- who has powerful friends, and thus cannot be simply rounded up -- is gradually won over by the artist's art. In the critical scene, a single tear falls from the Good Nazi's eye. (Spoilers ahead.) So, he covers for the artist; the artist creates a heroic indictment of the regime; and, after the regime crashes down, presumably laid low by his art, creates his masterwork, dedicated to the Soulful Nazi who saved him. The artist calls it, "Sonata for A Good Man," and it is such that the very fact of its existence -- we never know for sure what it consists of -- is enough to move we, the film audience to tears.

There, in a nutshell, is the story of this smarmy exercise in self-exculpation. If the thought of a Nazi killer -- or a redeemed Stasi fiend, as is the Good Man of The Lives of Others -- moved to shed a single tear does not move you to tears, you are perhaps afflicted by what many Germans used to call, in the late 1940s, the "Spirit of Morgenthau." Morgenthau was Truman's Jewish Secretary of the Treasury, and the most vocal advocate of a complete dismantling of Germany's war machine and full reparations for Germany's victims. In both instances, his arguments lost. Germany, as subsequent generations of genuine artists and activists managed to reveal, preferred to forget the past, to re-set the clock at "stunde null," zero hour.

The Lives of Others manages to do so again for East Germany, even as it devotes a couple of heavy-handed hours to the brutalities of life in the GDR. Or, rather, to the brutalities of the regime personified -- and thus limited to -- two repugnant personalities, a stupid, vulgar Communist Party bigshot and a conniving Stasi agent whose sadism is expressed mainly by the fact that he has a very ugly moustache. The CP bigshot is as corrupt as the artist, a playwright, is dedicated to "Art" (which shall hereafter be capitalized in recognition to its overpowering importance). Whereas the playwright, Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) is a beautiful man, the CP big is revolting, never more so than he drops trou to reveal his massive ass in tightey-whiteys, moving in like the backside of Jaws as he assaults Dreyman's actress-lover. CP Big's henchman is not as ugly, but his bulging middle and cautiously leering ways let us now that he will be just as soon as he gets enough power.

To say this is a caricature is to belabor the obvious, but it is also to risk being accused of sympathy for the devil. In this case, I have none; indeed, I'd much prefer a movie that dealt more painfully with East Germany's surveillance regime than this does simplistic tear jerker.

To be fair, my eyes watered. How could they not? There is a tragic death, and quiet heroism, and the sort of "moral ambiguity" designed to make liberals feel brave for acknowledging nuance. This last comes in the form of Dreyman's girlfriend, who, when threatened with being denied the chance to ever act again, informs on Dreyman. What's ambiguous about that? He protected her; she betrayed him rather than give up the spotlight; and both are screwed by the Stasi. Well, leave it at that, and it really might be morally ambiguous. But we're expected to take seriously the notion that her need to perform -- to practice her Art -- was of at least near-equal value with the life of her lover. For this, the film -- and its Good Men -- forgive her.

But heroism is reserved for the Good Stasi. Dreyman plays "Sonata for a Good Man" in remembrance of a theater comrade driven to suicide by the Stasi. The Good Stasi, Weisler, listens in on his surveillance equipment, sheds his tear, and then is stabbed in the heart with remorse when Dreyman quotes Lenin on the subject of Beethoven's "Appassionata": "If I keep listening to it, I won't finish the revolution." (Revolution=bad; Art=good. Let them eat sonatas.) In case viewers deficient in sentimentalism fail to grasp the point, the next scene shows Weisler confronted with a cute little boy who inadvertently reveals that his father doesn't like Stasi men. Weisler, in an amazing act of moral courage, does not gobble the child up, and that is how we know he is the sonata's Good Man.

Fast forward (as the film does over and over, "two years later," "four years later," etc.) to unified Germany. Dreyman discovers that Weisler saved him (the clue, worthy of the board game Clue, is a red fingerprint) and sets out to thank the man. In unified Germany, Dreyman is doing well, his plays finally performed properly (that is, with the actresses in glam evening gowns instead of factory drone dresses) for the right audiences -- rich ones, that is. Weisler, however, is even poorer than he was in the GDR, a sickly-looking mailman in the East Berlin slums. Dreyman decides that the best thing he can do for this wretched soul is not to thank him personally, but to transform his story into a bestselling novel -- under Dreyman's name, of course. But that, for Weisler, is enough -- the last words of the movie are Weisler buying the book and declaring "It's for me."

Let's sum up the heavy-handed morals of this "morally ambiguous" tale: If, like Dreyman's girlfriend, you rat out your lover for your Art, you're a tragic hero. If, like Weisler, after years of terrorizing innocents, you are moved to tears by Art, you're a tragic hero. And if, like Dreyman, you turn your story of suffering into a bestselling tale through which an entire nation, uncomfortable with its past, can blame it on a few ugly men and declare everyone else their victims, then you, too, are a tragic hero. The author, not authoritarianism, will reign supreme, if only we keep our faith in Art. Dana Stevens, reviewing The Lives of Others in Slate echoes the widespread critical love affair with this movie when he writes that it "ultimately becomes an ode to the transformative power of Art." (Capitalization mine.) It's an ode to something, alright, but it sure isn't art.

Hollywood makes this kind off movie, too, only instead of Art, we have Heart. Our Good Stasi and playwright rolled into one is a boxer named Rocky, a private named Ryan, a runt named Rudy, and even a German, Schindler and his list. If anything, Hollywood's sentimental escapism is better than that of The Lives of Other People; most of us are mature enough to recognize that Rocky is a fantasy. And not even Rocky was as heavy-handed as the director of Other People's Lives so unsure that we'll get the message of the music that he tells us the song is called "Sonata for a Good Man."

It's hard for me to grasp how this film played in Germany, where it's about what people among the audience did and didn't do not so many years ago. But in the U.S., where the film's surveillance state theme tickles the scaredy-bone of the kind of upper-middle viewer who goes to Art houses (I'm one of them), the raves are more disturbing. They reveal a mixture of moral self-pity and moral self-regard, a sense that we are all caught in a terrible system not of our making, subject to the whims of powerful Bad Men, whom we resist by going to the cinema, there to be transformed by Art.

Were such an aesthetic cliche trotted out to redeem Germany's upper middle-class 60 years ago, it would have been denounced as horrendous. That it is being used -- not in Germany, but here -- to assuage upper middle-class anxieties about political impotence, in a country and time where real resistance (and real art) is actually possible is, like the CP fatcat humping away at the morally vacant actress in The Lives of Others,, stupid, vulgar, and vain to the point of obscenity.


rebecca porper said...

morgenthau is better known as roosevelt's secretary of the treasury and tried to rescue some jews. the story of the allies inaction in the face of the genocide is appalling. today's genocides in cambodia, ruwanda, and somalia are eliciting the same do nothing response. we have learned little and we are all complicit.

Jeff Sharlet said...


Yes, but at the time he attempted to implement the Morganthau doctrine, he was working for Truman. I happen to think that his ideas were justified -- I'm not bashing them.

John said...

When the film first started in German cinemas, it received some very damning critiques, much harsher than yours, exactly for the purpose of being exculpatory and an extenuation of life in the DDR. To wit, Süddeutsche Zeitung and die tageszeitung printed such critiques. Possibly would turn up something.

Ivan said...

a very perceptive analysis. how ironic that Human Rights Watch chose this film to open its festival in London on 26 March 2007. is HRW policy on impunity being reconsidered so that perpetrators of serious human rights violations are urged to open their 'hearts' to 'Art'?

Anonymous said...

Your review of "The Lives of Others" is provocative and consistently interesting but I think it misreads two key ideas. The actress is not, in my view, exonerated as a tragic heroine. Her lover's anguished "Forgive me" at the moment of her death is seen ironically when he later discovers the truth of her betrayal. More importantly, your reading of the film as a sentimentalised version of the transformative possibilities of art misses the point. While the film shows that individuals may be moved, both emotionally and conceptually, by art, it also shows that the brutality of the political system continues unabated. The film makes clear that wider political movements, not art, bring about revolutionary change - eg its use of a photograph of Gorbachov as shorthand for this process. It makes no grandiose, idealised or romanticised claims for art. Its ethical imperative seems to me a far more modest but no less important one - that art may be politically impotent but also profoundly humanising, a means of sustaining a sense of empathy and compassion in the hope that "good times" will come again.

Anonymous said...

This is a "sonata for a good man", not for a "tragic hero."
the film makes no clain of heroism. This is a man attaining empathy, changing his mind and his ways. In a culture of moral terror like East Germany or Saddam's Iraq or Mugabe's Zikmbabwe this may be best one can do.

Chris Voparil said...


Although I share your disaffection with some of the film’s contrivances, I too think there is a larger point that your thoughtful reflection misses. I see the film less as an ode to the transformative power of art than as an ode to the power of human beings to transform themselves by taking a stand. (This rather than art itself is what Plato feared when he banished poetry from his ideal society in Book X of the Republic.) Certainly art can serve as catalyst and sustain us in this process, but the virtue of both Dreyman and Wiesler – which is what I take to be the film’s point – is precisely that neither succumbs to moral self-pity or sentimental escapism. Dreyman’s anguish over Jerska’s suicide culminates not in penning another play but in the life-altering decision to write a political tract (Hauser’s remark as he storms out of Dreyman’s party that Dreyman should only call him if he ever decides “to take action” not so subtly foreshadows this), and Wiesler’s initially impotent sentimentalism is transformed into something higher when he finally decides to take a stand against his poorly-mustachioed superior’s unprincipled careerism and cover for Dreyman.

On this view, Wiesler’s encounter with the “cute little boy” in the elevator is pivotal in the film’s eschewal of what William James once called “the sentimentalist fallacy,” by which he meant the capacity to “shed tears over abstract justice and generosity, beauty, etc., and never to know these qualities when you meet them in the street.” What distinguishes Dreyman and Wiesler, whose transformations are meant to parallel each other, from Dreyman’s girlfriend is how they become capable of transcending both egoism and sentimentalism through their self-transforming, inner-directed actions. Without diminishing Gorbachev’s role, one could argue that what occurred in 1989 was a collective decision by individuals in Budapest, in Prague, in Moscow, in Berlin to take to the streets in a stand against the sentimentalism, egoism, and hypocrisy that had perpetuated a corrupt system (exemplified in the film by our man in the “tightey-whiteys,” Wiesler’s superior, Dreyman’s girlfriend, and had Wiesler and Dreyman continued along the paths they were on, one opened by “success” in the Operations Lazlo, the other by writing the 40th anniversary commemorative play, Wiesler and Dreyman themselves). It is precisely their refusal of hypocrisy – what Vaclav Havel, not uncoincidentally, called “living in truth” – that ultimately becomes transformative, even revolutionary. Art, as was suggested above, merely sustains us and keeps hope alive in the interim, creating the space within which change becomes possible.

While I agree with your point about Hollywood’s sentimental escapism, in the end the onus must be put on ourselves rather than on the films, or on art in general. (Art cannot transform us; we can only transform ourselves.) Here, again, James is worth quoting, at some length, from his Principles of Psychology:

“There is no more contemptible type of human character than that of the nerveless sentimentalist and dreamer, who spends his life in a weltering sea of sensibility and emotion, but who never does a manly concrete deed. […] The habit of excessive novel-reading and theatre-going will produce true monsters in this line. The weeping of a Russian lady over the fictitious personages in the play, while her coachman is freezing to death on his seat outside, is the sort of thing that everywhere happens on a less glaring scale. […] The remedy would be, never to suffer one's self to have an emotion at a concert, without expressing it afterward in some active way. Let the expression be the least thing in the world – speaking genially to one's aunt, or giving up one's seat in a horse-car, if nothing more heroic offers – but let it not fail to take place.”

Wiesler and Dreyman seem to exemplify the “remedy” James calls for. Your critique of sentimental escapism, though justified, may be better directed at those of us who have yet to achieve in our own lives what Wiesler and Dreyman did in theirs, than at the film itself.

Danusha said...

Chris Voparil, thank you for your post.

Anonymous said...

I just saw the film for the second time and thought Wiesler’s encounter with love, albeit indirectly, also played a role in his transformation. Initially, it's hard to imagine him as a son or brother, much less as a boyfriend or lover. He lives by himself. He lives for his job. He uses prostitutes for sex. But as he spies on Georg and Christa-Maria, he becomes privy to their most intimate moments. And when he enters their apartment and takes a book of Brecht poems, he also wistfully touches the edge of their bed. Love has many faces. The touching look on Wiesler's face after he asks the matter-of-fact call girl to stay a little longer says it well: For him, the encounter isn't just about physical release, but a longing for genuine human connection. Love also, of course, finds expression in every art form. But its highest expression is one person’s willingness to sacrifice his or her own well-being for another’s. Wiesler does this in the film, well aware of the price he might have to pay for betraying the state.

Anonymous said...

Jeff, I pass on this post of yours every time someone praises The Lives of Others, but maybe you'd like to fix this one word? "...the very fact of its enough to move tears."

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