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.