Sunday, August 05, 2007
This post refers to some (but not all) big plot developments in The Lives of Others. Normally, I don't think one needs to be totally ignorant of the contents of a film to enjoy it. In this case, though, I really think there are some things you need to see for yourself the first time. If you have not seen the movie, but plan to, you should really consider not reading this. It comes out on DVD on 8/21/2007.
The Lives Of Others is a color film, but for most of it there's an institutional gray pallor to everything. Beyond being the color scheme of the Stasi uniform worn by the main character, as well as of the most of the interior and exterior walls, it seems to overwhelm what should be the healthier color of human flesh. This part of the film is set in East Berlin, 1984. The main character, Gerd Wiesler , is a Stasi officer. He's well-respected by his peers and superiors for both his eye for surveillance and his ability to interrogate someone until they admit to "crimes against the state."
Wiesler becomes disillusioned with his job, and maybe sympathetic to some crime against the state, while surveilling a playwright. His resentment initially has nothing to do with the ethics of his job; he's loyal to the communist state. What sparks his antipathy for his superiors, and his sense of solidarity with his subject, is his discovery that his assignment has nothing to do with protecting the state from thought crimes: one of the ministers lusts after the playwright's ladyfriend and wants to remove the competition.
Wiesler begins omitting details from his reports, and eventually starts fabricating them to protect the man. This reminded me quite a lot of Clive Owen's casino dealer in Croupier. Both men begin their movies believing they are objective transmitters of fate, rather than actively engaged in pursuing someone's interests. By the time each man realizes this, though, they're far too implicated for everyone to escape unscathed.
This is is a good theme, but by the time Wiesler is realizing he's caused the death of someone he thought he was protecting I was wondering what I'm to get out of this theme and this film. Should I be considering the Bush Administration's warrentless, ovesightless domestic surveillance over anyone they deem enemies? (I make this comparison based on the principle of domestic spying, not the scope of it (not that we ever get to learn the true scope of the United States' post 9/11/2001 domestic spying)). Do I really need this movie to illustrate how awful life under a dictatorship is? I already got it; I know it was bad. So what does this movie have to offer?
For his own crimes against the state, Wiesler is exiled to spending the balance of his career doing the lowliest, lonliest work the Stasi can find for him. Had the movie ended here, with Wiesler crushed by the power of the State, it would have implicitly validated the notion of not doing anything in the first place; in effect, Wiesler would have blood on his hands precisely because he chose to protect rather than surveil.
There's an epilogue, though, that takes place about 7 years later. It opens with Wiesler at work, steaming open people's mail. The gray pallor is gone; for the first time the human flesh tones look vibrant and healthy. For Wiesler and his colleagues, the world is about to change.
I'm going to leave out the details of what happens over the next 20 minutes, but it's sad and beautiful. We see Wiesler a few more times, though he's not the star of this segment. He's still dressed in drab gray (a Member's Only jacket rather than a Stasi uniform) and he's delivering either mail or fliers out of the shabbiest looking cart. The buildings are still sickly gray, but they are also colored with graffiti. Wiesler is no longer a man with any distinguished status or one that commands any respect. He's lost his loyalty to the Communist state, too: he closes the film with a line that's both utterly capitalist and full of pride.