Sunday, December 02, 2007

The drift on The Lives of Others

Normally, I am suspicious of Oscar-winning foreign language films. Accentuated by their exoticness, their subject matter is rewarded for its ability to connect with the voters of the Academy more than its inherent craft. But I was blown away by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's terrific political thriller about socialist corruption in pre-cold war DDR - Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others) which scooped up this year's prize for best film.

Gerd Wiesler works for the Stasi, the East German Secret Police. As played by Ulrich Mühe, he is a measured man, brilliant at his craft - surveillance and interrogation - a product of the regime loyal to a fault. As a captain in the Secret Police, he hunts down dissenters - anyone who shows even the slightest modicum of disrespect to the regime - even if only in a joke.

Early on he is asked to wire tap and shadow Georg Dreyman, a theater writer and his girlfriend, an actress called Christa-Maria Sieland - both of whom cloak their distrust of the State with care. But the reasons for the surveillance are a bit different this time. A corrupt minister is in love with Christa-Maria and wants to indite Dreyman and get him out his way.

Georg Dreyman is played as a warm, large-hearted man by Sebastian Koch whose loyalty for those close to him mirrors that of Wiesler's for his State. And it is the death of someone close to him that triggers Dreyman's frustration with those in power. The setting is thus ripe for his fall.

Only something curious has happened to his voyeur Wiesler which now complicates things. While consuming Dreyman's life through microphone and a surveillance camera, Wiesler's inner sense of fairness has begun to challenge his loyalty for the State.

You could praise Donnersmarck's direction, but the hard work here has been done by the script (which he also wrote). Perhaps fittingly, since this movie revolves around writers and their innate power to change their environment. The plot is dense enough, but Donnersmarck stages it with such unhurried confidence that the movie feels paced comfortably even when its covering a lot of ground.

Koch plays his character with a twinkle-eyed warmth that never descends into cockiness. The way he plays Dreyman makes it easy to believe how his plight could seduce even the hardest of hearts.

Mühe has the tougher role to play - primarily because his character is a repressed man. He gives Wiesler a steadied expression - his blankness only occasionally relieved by a sadness or fleeting glint in his eyes. Thus, when it is time to show the longing inside him which eventually results in his transformation, Mühe surprises you with his minimalist ability to convey the emotion of his character.

The movie is full of excellent performances. Martina Gedeck, as Dreyman's conflicted girlfriend, is particularly stellar.

But the magic here belongs to Von Donnersmarck. Just about everything he tries works - only one or two scenes feel slightly clumsy. Instead of taking stale potshots at socialism, he is careful about making his movie one about corruption brought about by unquestioned power. Von Donnersmarck also weaves in history to frame his story - but he does this organically, thus ensuring his movie doesn't appear self-aggrandizing.

By keeping his movie focussed on his characters and their lives, Von Donnersmarck gives us an extreme close-up of the society that housed them in the mid-eighties.


Anonymous said...

Aspi, thanks for that excellent review. This movie is one of those languishing on my netflix list, but I need to bump it up and get a hold of it. Unlike you, I like to watch award winning foreign films ---- I'm a huge movie buff.

Last yr I watched Water, Pan's Labyrinth and Volver. Unfortunately Volver didn't make the Oscar cut though I loved it. Pan's Labrinth was also amazing and I thought it would win given all the positive buzz.

I'm not a huge fan of Deepa Mehta, but I watched Water in solidarity against all the bigoted politicians who in benaras stymied a creative enterprise. I wasn't particularly impressed by Water, but at least I amused my husband by my symbolic protest against the bigots. The BH frequently gets a few laughs fm my idealistic gestures albeit in an indulgent - I love my pagal biwi- way!

My discovery of Indian reality TV has been fun and I love that I've found this fantastic community thru it but I miss my movie time and yr review reminded me of how much.

Unknown said...

Sidekick I'm with you on this. And its probably why I haven't been too keen to fix my DVR these weeks regarding Lil Champs either. I've got a long Netflix queue I need to run through.

I really liked this one because it doesn't have any overt physical violence - which is always a plus with the Drift Memsaab, and which I have to be careful about when bringing movies home.

I do need to see Volver - I rarely miss Pedro Almadovar's films.

You can also use solidarity as an excuse to go see Aaja Nachle. Mind Rush is writing something about it for us.

Anonymous said...

Thats not fair Aspi. U got us hooked onto ur site cos u gave us lovely thoughts on reality shows....and now u say u prefer the foreign movies to SRGMP!!
What a letdown for desis like us!!I feel like a mother whose son says he is leaving the country and marrying a gori mem!!!!
Gosh, was that too melodramatic?I just hope u can manage to give ur fun write-ups on the shows alongwith the flicks u enjoy!
Lady Drift will agree that desi reality shows do not have any physical violence!!!

Unknown said...

Not to worry, anu g. I still think SRGMP was the greatest circus on TV. I'm just not finding much time for Lil Champs :(. I'll try my best to balance everything.

ppl said...

Aha this movie came up in my Elite Deviance class today and lo and behold I open the Drift for my JDJ/NB fix and find your insightful review.

Since you mentioned its low on violence,its a major plus for me as well while my better half will devour anything related to the Cold War era. Seems like a must watch!

Anonymous said...

Leera, elite deviance class? tell all.....BTW, did u manage to catch Mission Ustaad?

Aspi, looking fwd to Mind Rush's Aaja Nachle piece. I'm defi planning to see it ---- all in the name of solidarity, of course :)

Unknown said...

I second sidekick's suggestion, Leera. Teach us!

ppl said...

Its pretty depressing considering most of it details the myriad ways in which we the 'masses' get f***ed over without lube on a daily basis by the political/social elite.

Still interested?

ppl said...

On a more cheerful note Mission Ustaad aired, I am going to watch it online today.
The review on India-Forums was however not promising, it seems to have a socio-political agenda, how that is executed on reality tv remains to be seen.

Unknown said...

leera, wow, whats the text book for that? :)

Hey, Sidekick has done a review of Mission Ustad for us. I need to do screen caps (hopefully by tomorrow) and put it up.

ppl said...

The book's called Elite Deviance and my class is Sociology of Deviance, hands down my fave sociology class so far.

Cannot wait for the Mission Ustaad review, lets see how the dichotomy of 'thoughtful' reality TV pans out.

Anonymous said...

Leera, I'll second that - wow! sounds like pretty intense stuff. At the risk of getting in over my head I'd love to know more, but I suspect both of us will be booted out by those who come here for some masti, lively discussion,and to escape the depression around us :P .

On Mission Ustaad, I'm not sure what to make of it yet ---- more in the post--- but I'd love to hear what u thought of it.

Unknown said...

Hey leera, this sounds like more fun than what I do all day :)