Recipe for an Oscar - take a script that bashes what passed for Socialism behind the Iron Curtain, make it long and boring, toss in some cardboard characters, add dollops of melodrama and voila - turn up to collect your golden statuette. Seeing as how the vast majority of reviews for this abomination of a film were so overly gushing and full of praise, it can only be concluded that the entire movie review industry has finally been co opted by those who would seek to control public opinion, whoever they might be.
It is a well known fact that the capitalist elites are terrified of the possibility that people might figure out the true meaning of Socialism - i.e. a political and economic system based on the equality of all - and so they go to great lengths to paint the events behind the Iron Curtain as bona-fide Socialism (which is as ridiculous as saying that China can be “Capitalist” when it doesn’t allow private property). This film is yet another such attempt and therefore is no surprise that it meets with the whole hearted approval of the opinion leaders.
I will not at this point bore you with the details of the story, such as they are. Those can be found in any of the hundreds of reviews available on the Internet. Suffice to say that this film is an attempt at portraying moral reawakening. Wiesler, a hardened Stasi operative, is surveilling Dreyman, a suspected dissident playwright, and one day, while listening to some music he has a change of heart and magically decides to do the right thing henceforth, at great personal risk. If the central premise sounds weak, that’s because it is and no amount of dressing up in long slow takes and stony faced acting can take away from the fact that Wiesler’s transformation happens as though by magic, a deeply unsatisfying device in any plot.
Could it be that this is the first time Wiesler has heard beautiful music during his duties? Did something happen in his personal life that caused the change? If so, what? Is it just that he’s getting older? No explanation is forthcoming from Herr Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck.
And this isn’t even the only false step in the movie. There are more, most glaringly, Dreyman’s own behaviour. How come nary a word against the State, even when he finds out the politician Hempf has groped his girlfriend CMS? And this man, who it certainly seems is totally sympathetic towards the regime, suddenly transforms into a dissident, writing a twee little tearjerker on suicides? Towards the end, the whole business of the typewriter becomes, quite frankly, ridiculous. Did the Stasi send children to look for it the first time? It certainly seemed as though the team had had plenty of experience tearing up apartments. Their failure to find it is again left unexplained. The accidental death of CMS is just the kind of melodramatic tripe you would expect in this film by the time it comes around. The director squandered a fine chance to add some drama by keeping her alive (those of you who have seen the film might consider the possibilities ending in some tension as he goes through the files.)
The film reeks throughout of falsehood. The characters are so fake - oh, look at the lonely spy, the corrupt politician, the good-looking hero, the washed up director - and the melodrama is total Hollywood. For someone who could have drawn from the fine East European tradition of Kafkaesque narratives (per Karel Kachyna’s The Ear and many others), Herr Donnersmarck has chosen instead to pander to the tastes of audiences brought up on Hollywood mush.
A film that doesn’t tell you anything that you couldn’t have found out from the paper is nothing more than journalism and journalism, as we know, is not art.
Since the whole film paints the Stasi as a logical outcome of Socialism (the director has read enough Marx to know there exists a term called “Dictatorship of the Proletariat”, but perhaps not much more), it’s pretty clear what the point of this film is. Even so, the director chooses to belabour it once more in a meeting between Dreyman and Hempf after the fall of the Wall. Hempf tells Dreyman that he hasn’t written since the Wall came down because “it’s boring. Nothing to rebel against.” as though Hempf has somehow been cured of his prediliction to grope other people’s wives with the coming of capitalism, and as though surveillance could never happen in the Free World or that suicides don’t happen at alarming rates in the West. Implicit in this statement is the understanding that this is the end of German history and perhaps, if you are Francis Fukuyama, of all history period. I believe Hobbes said the same thing about the monarchies. When it comes to prophecies, I tend to agree with the other Marx - Groucho - who said one should never prophecise, especially about the future.
In the end, this film is nothing but capitalist propaganda and if it appealed to you it is because that is the purpose of propaganda - to reinforce what you already know about those bad Communists/Capitalists/Homosexuals and give your brain the warm thrill of confirming biases. A little digging yields hope - the film was not selected for the Berlin festival, and only made it as a Special Presentation at the Toronto festival. Apart from the Oscar’s (and we all know how those are given out), all the awards it has won have been from the Film Press or Audience awards i.e.no self respecting jury would bless this film with an award.
Now after films like Tsotsi and Goodbye Bafana have tried to reinforce white capitalist superiority over the blacks, The Lives of Others does it for the toiling masses behind the Iron Curtain. To enjoy this film is to be complicit in a system that celebrates exploitation, pretty much like the bad system it is purporting to criticise.
I invite readers to a discussion in the comments below, where we can discuss what I am sure will be many interesting objections on your part.