I saw the 2006 Oscar Winning Foreign Film, The Lives of Others this weekend. I was a big fan of the film back when I first heard of it in February just because it beat out the loathsome and irresponsible Pan's Labrynth for the Oscar. Now, having finally seen it, I'm a really big fan of it. For several reasons.
The first reason I was enthralled to see this film has less to do with the actual film, and more to do with my long-held preoccupation that the stories from the Gulag (and "its errors as they spread through the world," ref. Our Lady of Fatima) haven't been told. We've seen the attrocities of the Nazis over and over, and rightly so. But the sufferings caused by Hitler hardly have a monopoly on the evil of the last Century, a moment of human history which Pope John Paul II described with a shudder as "a pile of corpses."
It's easy to understand why many of the folks in Hollywood wouldn't be jumping up and down to make movies showing the evils of communism and the heroism of people who suffered and lost their lives fighting it. It was downright fashionable in post-War and 1950's Hollywood to be a leftist. It was on the wave of this trend that we saw absurd Hollywoodites like Jane Fonda doing propaganda for the Viet Kong during Vietnam, and Warren Beatty making a teary eyed valentine to the ideals of the Revolution in Reds. My film school professors at Northwestern were almost all committed Marxists, hypocritcally nostalgic for the days when "the workers" were freed from the constraints of organized religion and sweating away in soot-covered factories, while themselves having unconstrined free-speech while pulling down pretty big salaries. I had one professor sniff to me when I complained about Stalin's starving 6,000,000 Lithuanians and Ukrainians and putting 10,000,000 more folks in prison camps, "Stalin was forced to make difficult choices by the pressures of foreign capitalist regimes. The truth is, communsm hasn't failed. It just has never really been tried." Anyway, I am sure that there are lots of folks in Hollywood who find the unwashed masses/religion-oppressing vision of communism, a wistful fantasy.
But, for the record, it seems to me downright unfair, that we have seen only a handful of fringe movies about the millions of people Stalin killed. Or the untold millions who died in the name of Mao's cultural revolution. Or how about folks like the Cuban guy I met once in Miami who had his ring finger cut off because Castro wanted him to know for sure that his wife who had fled to the U.S. was really, really dead to him? Why haven't we seen more of the ugly, brutal, fanatical, radically hypocritical and despotic face of atheistic communism marching across the screen in the last fifty years? Just asking...
So, in telling one story of the demonic Big Brotherness of the former East Germany's secret police, The Lives of Others had me at Fade In.
The story, in brief, is that a Stasi agent seeks out an assignment to spy on Georg Dreyman, the top pro-communist playwright of East Germany. The playwright is handsome, charming, a good writer, and is in a live-in relationship with Christa, an actress described by one of the Party bosses as, "the pearl of the East German stage." The Stasi agent resents Dreyman, the film suggests in a kind of envy, and so he willingly takes on the assignment from the lustful Party boss who wants Christa for himself, to try and find something seditious in the life of Georg. The agent bugs Georg's apartment and then spends the next hour or more of the film listening in to the lives of Georg, Christa and their artist friends. As he listens, the agent moves out of resentment into solidarity which climaxes in a wonderful act of other-centeredness.
At its heart, this film is an emphatic indictment of the whole communist era. Which warmed my heart. Over and over, the audience watches the horrific permutations of life in communist Germany with a kind of befuddled, "Why did people consent to live like that? How could the citizens of the state do that to each other?" The answer comes back: Fear and power. The narrative includes many scathing but certainly true asides detailing the ruthlessness and hypocrisy of the communist power-brokers in the GDR, from their lack of humor, to their exploitation of those under their control, to their petty obsession with detail.
The Lives of Others has a solid story which has only a couple of missteps. The movie suffers in the end by jumping ahead in time three times. This was an awkward way to get to an ultimately happy ending that could have been achieved much more gracefully.
The other slight misstep is that the film needs a stronger moment to cause the Stasi agent to move out of coldness towards the objects of his spying and into empathy. Right now, the film is a bit too mysterious about it. An American studio story meeting would have caught that early on. But it doesn't harm the overall project that much, because the real drama comes more from the arena of the tale, than from the details of the tale itself.
The film is pervaded by the constant fear that the alternately random and focussed terrorizing of the State is going to sweep into the main character's lives at any second. This keeps the viewer's attention, even despite the European filmmakers tendency to repeat himself and ramble around a little more than is needed for the narrative.
The pallet of the piece is very faded - all grays and browns, blacks and washed out greens and yellows. In so doing, the production designer makes a powerful comment on the colorlessness of life behind the Iron Curtain.
The acting is good. The cinematography is good. The theme - about the mysterious connection and empathy between human beings despite all odds - is great.
The movie isn't for children. There is nudity in a couple of contrasting sexual situations that very effectively show the absence of love in the lives of the communists vs. the real love experienced by the artists. There isn't any real violence in the film, but a lot of tension. Every college kid should see it, if only to make real the life stories of 60% of the people of the world in the 20th Century - and continuing today in China, North Korea, Cuba, and wherever else despots rule.
I recommend you make The Lives of Others part of your life.