Friday, April 26, 2013

Apropos of nothing in particular

I watched The Lives of Others again recently, and it held up very well indeed. For anyone who missed it on its previous theatrical and home video releases, the film is set in “East” Berlin (how archaic the distinction begins to sound!) in 1984, an odd choice of era in which to depict a surveillance-obsessed society.

Playwright Georg Dreyman, a cosseted darling of the German Democratic Republic, is so obviously a socialist believer that the regime has never troubled itself to monitor him until an influential Central Committee member develops a lech for Dreyman’s girlfriend. Ferocious, über-straitlaced Stasi operative Gerd Wiesler (brilliantly—brilliantly!—depicted by the late actor Ulrich Mühe, already mortally ill during filming) is assigned to monitor the comings(!) and goings at Chez Dreyman to get the goods on the dramatist and clear the field for his powerful rival. Unfortunately for the designs of swinish Minister Hempf and of sleek Oberstleutnant Anton Grubitz, Wiesler’s old classmate and now superior, their chosen instrument proves to be that dangerous tool, a true believer: a devotee of the socialist ideal as sincere as the object of his clandestine scrutiny. Slowly (and the film is masterful in conveying the gradual erosion of the spy’s zeal) a sympathy develops between the watcher and the watched, and Wiesler is by imperceptible degrees transformed from persecutor to protector.

We were visiting Seattle some years back when The Lives of Others had its theatrical release in this country, and it was playing at a small cinema near our bed & breakfast. I’d hoped to see it then, but in the event we were obliged to await its release on DVD. What I remember from that first viewing, and what particularly impressed me on the reprise, was how intelligently the ending was handled. My own sensibilities and expectations debauched by so much of the American product, I experienced a rising sense of dread during the closing minutes first time out. “Oh, no,” I thought. “Without a foot set wrong the past two hours, the director is going to ruin everything with this sentimental and obvious denouement?”

I needn’t have worried, and ought to have had more faith. Thank god that Steven Spielberg didn’t have the conn. Anyway, if you haven't seen it yet, you ought to.