Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Constant Viewer: The Lives of Others

Constant Viewer rarely watches foreign language films, at least not in first release, and realizes this is a great failing. CV has never been comfortable reading subtitles and rarely finds such films aesthetically or emotionally satisfying as a result. For that reason and despite its almost universal praise, CV does not recommend seeing The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen) on the big screen. The good news, however, is that it will probably soon be released on DVD. Of course, if you speak German or if subtitles don't bother you in the slightest, you can probably still catch it at the cineplex, too. Seeing it on a smaller screen later won't significantly diminish its merits, though, so CV would still lean towards waiting for the DVD release.

Constant Viewer does not believe this film deserves the lavish praise it has received. It is a very good film, a movie definitely worth seeing, but CV can't help but harbor suspicions that any foreign language film so thoroughly understandable to the average American film goer (and, hence, reviewer) makes that viewer feel all clever and international and thus disposed to a favorable review. The fact is that Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's writing and directing is painfully linear and obvious almost to the point of being insulting. The dialog beats the viewer over the head with whatever plot or political point is being made, and while there are several nice and unexpected twists along the way, there is nothing really special or tricky or "artistic" about the acting or directing or story line. Any viewer failing to get the plot or the message here would have been bewildered by the storyline of a Pokemon movie.

Of course, another way to look at all of that is that it is art to conceal art and that Donnersmarck and the cast have done an entirely credible job with an entirely competent and workable script -- the story of the increasingly intertwined lives of an East German playwright and his actress lover with that of a Stasi (secret police) officer assigned to spy on them. But it is the absurdity of the final days of the East German state that make the movie worth seeing, whereas no one ever said, for example, that what makes Citizen Kane great is how much one learns about William Randolph Hearst.

For the perennially ax grinding sorts among us, there are no doubt analogies to be made between the bathetic spy vs. spy nightmare of the DDR and post 9/11 PATRIOT Act America. But don't kid yourself. Unless you have ever been to East Germany before the system collapsed or to any of the other Soviet satellite states during the Cold War, you haven't a clue what it was really like. CV was in East Berlin once before the end of the regime and then again a few months after the Wall came down. The first trip was the most eerie of my life. It physically felt like the exact opposite of the scene in the Wizard of Oz when Dorothy opens the door and steps into a world of color. Crossing Checkpoint Charlie into East Berlin, all the color in the world washed out into a dull, lifeless gray almost instantly. It showed at once in the poorly lighted streets and unmaintained buildings and in the faces and body language of the poorly dressed and unkempt people on the streets. East Berlin was the closest thing to the walking dead in a limbo of perpetual dusk I have ever witnessed.

And it was the most prosperous and flourishing showcase of the entire Soviet socialist world.

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