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Tony Watkins

The Lives of Others (Das Leben Der Anderen)

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The only reference I can find to this film here is a mention by Ron in the 'looking forward to 2007' thread. Did none of you see it at Toronto? Although it's not released in the UK until April, it was released in Germany in March 2006 and has been at a number of festivals so I can't see that there's any point in an embargo. Still, until I've checked I won't say much. However, I'm glad I hadn't read the plot summary that Ron posted - I wouldn't have wanted to watch it with that expectation. I will also say that it fully deserves the Foreign Language Oscar. The best film I've seen in months.

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It's impossible to say whether or not we already have a thread on this film, since the search engine currently doesn't even turn up THIS thread.

FWIW, I saw this at the Vancouver festival last year, and loved it. I don't know that I'd give it the Oscar, though -- it's up against a Canadian film! :) And yeah, I'm glad I went into the theatre knowing almost nothing about the plot.

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opus   

I didn't see it in Toronto -- it conflicted with some other movies that I wanted to see -- but I talked with someone who did and they just raved about it.

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Doug C   

It's a very effective narrative film with a slow boil that really gets under your skin--and certainly the issue of government surveillance has never been more timely in this country--but some of its plot conceits are so silly

(a loyal Stasi officer is instantaneously transformed into a humanist after leafing through Brecht)

that you really have to forgive them in order to fully embrace the film, and I know many cinephiles who won't. It's a film with its heart in the right place, but I watched scores of better, more challenging, complex, and adventurous foreign films last year. But I'm glad it's fueling a genuine cultural dialogue in Germany.

Edited by Doug C

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but some of its plot conceits are so silly

(a loyal Stasi officer is instantaneously transformed into a humanist after leafing through Brecht)

that you really have to forgive them in order to fully embrace the film, and I know many cinephiles who won't.

I think that's an over-harsh reading of what happens to Wiesler. It is the result of the cumulative influence of many things.

He doesn't steal the Brecht and become transformed by reading it out of idle curiosity, be steals it to read because he is already being transformed - that's why he goes into the flat to look around again. More than the art, he is transformed by the encounter with the genuine love between Georg and Christa - it's why he touches the bed so tenderly. And why he goes home on one occasion and has a prostitute visit him; he pleads with her to stay because he wants the feeling of emotional connection that Georg has, not merely the sexual.

It's impossible to say whether or not we already have a thread on this film, since the search engine currently doesn't even turn up THIS thread.

Perhaps we should mention the director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck - a name that is guaranteed to give a small number of results I suspect!

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Found this bit from J. Hoberman's review interesting:

Soon, the severe Stasi robot is sneaking downstairs to borrow poetry books. Under this benign influence, he becomes a vicarious participant in Dreyman and Christa's love affair. Listening to their "confessions," he is their guardian angel -- as
The Lives of Others
is a materialist gloss on Wim Wenders's free-floating allegory of divided Berlin,
Wings of Desire
. No less than Bruno Ganz's empathetic seraphim, Wiesler longs to be human.

Slight nit-pick: "Seraphim" is plural, "seraph" is singular.

- - -

Oscar-nominated 'Lives of Others' arrives from Germany, where it prompted national debate

Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck is a little relieved to be taking "The Lives of Others" outside Germany, where people responded emotionally and lavished the movie with seven Lolas (the country's equivalent of the Academy Awards). Now that it's arriving in the U.S., he's hopeful it will be seen more as a movie than a springboard for reflection on its setting: the communist German Democratic Republic, or East Germany.

Associated Press, February 7

Edited by Peter T Chattaway

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Found this bit from J. Hoberman's review interesting:

Soon, the severe Stasi robot is sneaking downstairs to borrow poetry books. Under this benign influence, he becomes a vicarious participant in Dreyman and Christa's love affair. Listening to their "confessions," he is their guardian angel -- as
The Lives of Others
is a materialist gloss on Wim Wenders's free-floating allegory of divided Berlin,
Wings of Desire
. No less than Bruno Ganz's empathetic seraphim, Wiesler longs to be human.

I think Hoberman is being unfair on the film. He suggests that it is simply the reading of Brecht that transforms Wiesler. Although he notes an earlier cause for him engaging with the lives of those he watches ("He's a true believer who is genuinely disturbed to learn his mission is personal: The porcine Minister of Culture has designs on Christa. Wiesler contrives to have Dreyman figure this out. That's the beginning."), it is a very simplistic reading of the film to suggest that this somehow prompts him to steal the Brecht. The stealing of the book is a symptom, not a cause.

I think he's unfair on it in a more important sense, though. He dismisses it for its closure: 'the movie's tragic trajectory is betrayed by an increasingly squishy humanism

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Yeah, I didn't find the film "squishy" at all -- though I can appreciate that the multiple endings, and the sudden telescoping of events where the film had previously followed a more leisurely pace, might open the film up to charges of directorial interference in the story.

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Yeah, I didn't find the film "squishy" at all -- though I can appreciate that the multiple endings, and the sudden telescoping of events where the film had previously followed a more leisurely pace, might open the film up to charges of directorial interference in the story.

Yes, I guess so.

I still find it extraordinary that the Stasi has 100,000 employees plus informants. How did the DDR find the money to pay them all? It was interesting for me to watch the film with a Ukrainian colleague. While the secret police were less active there, the climate of suspicion was a part of life.

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A good review in the New York Times. A.O. Scott clearly doesn't see it like Hoberman:

Goodness, as a subject for art, risks falling prey to piety and wishful thinking, but "The Lives of Others," one of the nominees for this year's best foreign-language film Oscar, never sacrifices clarity for easy feeling. Posing a stark, difficult question - how does a good man act in circumstances that seem to rule out the very possibility of decent behavior? - it illuminates not only a shadowy period in recent German history, but also the moral no man's land where base impulses and high principles converge.
Interesting final sentence:
Georg and Captain Wiesler, though they occasionally waver and worry, remain true to their essential natures, and thus embody the film

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Mike Smith at Past the Popcorn echoes my own feelings:

I find it very hard to review this film. It is so insightful and profound that my review cannot do it justice. I am just not a good enough writer to express the deeply satisfying emotion of this film. It

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Oscar winner "Lives of Others" set for remake

The Oscar-winning German spy drama "The Lives of Others" is set to be remade as an English-language movie, Daily Variety reported in its Thursday edition. The trade paper said the project would be developed by former Miramax Films chiefs Bob and Harvey Weinstein, and filmmakers Sydney Pollack and Anthony Minghella. "We would just desperately love for that film to be something that reaches more people (via remake)," Pollack was quoted as telling the paper. "We haven't gotten locked into making it yet, but we're working hard at trying to get it going."

Reuters, March 1

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I'm frustrated that I still haven't seen this movie.

Here's John Podhoretz:

I think there may be another reason for the reluctance of the makers of pop culture worldwide to reckon with communism, and that is shame. The ideological struggle against leftist totalitarianism was something that did not arouse the interest or enthusiasm of cultural elites in the West during the Cold War. Far from it; from the 1960s onward, the default position of the doyens of popular culture was a presumption in favor of the Communist struggle, as personified by Mao, the Viet Cong, Castro, the Sandinistas, El Salvador's guerrillas, and the so-called African liberation movements.

This was not a reasoned, or thought-through, view. It was little more than fashion. And rarely, if ever, has history rendered a more devastating verdict on the wrongheadedness of fashionable Western groupthink than it did when the walls and statues came down, and Lenin was removed from his unholy pedestal.

They got it wrong. And though they may not know it, they are ashamed of it and do not wish to be reminded of it. Perhaps that's why it took a 33-year-old to make this masterpiece--a 33-year-old who was too young during the Cold War to have joined any camp in any meaningful way. Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck found a great story to tell with a great setting and he told it with peerless skill while bearing none of the scars of past ideological battles.

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That's a very interesting comment. He's certainly right than many western Marxists quietly abandoned their faith in Communism, though some continue to do so. I'm less sure about why only someone of Donnersmark's age could have made this film.

Anyway, I'm delighted that he did - and very pleased that it won the Foreign Language Oscar. I'm itching to see it again.

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I'm thinking about the understanding of betrayal in this film. The Stasi

force Christa to betray Dreyman

, but I think we are meant to see the way the Stasi (and the Communist system in general) were a betrayal of the people. Later, when

Weisler covers everything up, he is betraying the system and his superiors

, but we see this as something of a double negative becoming a positive.

On a less intense note, I love the last line of the movie.

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My first-impression review.

And now, reading through this thread, I'm delighted to discover that I'm not the only one who was thinking about Wings of Desire. (It's my favorite film, and it's intensely focused on the East/West Germany divide, so really, how could I avoid thinking about it?)

I agree with you, Tony. Wiesler's transformation is incremental. He's so jealous of his targets' freedom that his seizure of the Brecht book is just one of his first indulgences... an action that comes from a long-simmering desire.

Sure, his transformation is a bit implausible and swift, but I thought it was much more convincing and affecting than most big-screen redemptions. Characters tend to turn on a dime, and then they collapse into sobbing, gratuitous confessions (I'm talking to you, Oskar Schindler.) This was much more satisfying.

Still... Best Foreign Language Film of 2006? Give me a freaking break.

Edited by Jeffrey Overstreet

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Jeffrey Overstreet wrote:

: Still... Best Foreign Language Film of 2006? Give me a freaking break.

I might have given the edge to Water. Haven't seen After the Wedding. What I find most interesting about this -- i.e. about the "upset" whereby Pan's Labyrinth won in three technical categories but lost in this one -- is that the Academy members who voted in THIS category were reportedly REQUIRED to watch ALL FIVE of the nominees, a requirement that apparently didn't apply to all of the other categories.

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'Lives' chases U.S. record

Pic, which has grossed $7.4 million Stateside (and $17.4 million in Germany), has surpassed such international Teutonic hits as Oliver Hirschbiegel's "Downfall," Tom Tykwer's "Run, Lola, Run," Wim Wenders' "Buena Vista Social Club" and Caroline Link's Oscar-winning "Nowhere in Africa." Yet "The Lives of Others," . . . is still behind Wolfgang Petersen's 1982 World War II classic "Das Boot," which garnered $11.5 million in U.S. theaters (including revenue from the 1997 release of the director's cut).

Variety, April 10

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I saw this last night and loved it. I grew up reading the spy novels of the cold war era, and was a broadcast journalist during the Reagan/Gorbachev/Thatcher/Mulroney/Honecker era; the escapes to the west, the front-page scoops reported by Der Spiegel -- these were the stuff of daily newscasts. For me, this film lifted the curtain on a part of history which seems both familiar and eternally enigmatic.

I loved the smart, subtle writing; it's a very strong film, but not because of the acting or cinematography, but because of the script (and the plot itself). For instance,

the insight into why Christa and Georg are coming under scrutiny (because the Minister's attentions offer a chance for self-advancement), is revealed with great effect

.

But another example of smart writing comes with subtle touches, such as the insight into the nature of hope

as touching upon suicide. We hear the Stasi's smugly stated truth that 'hope is the last thing to die' -- in other words, that hope springs eternal, and that the person dies and only then can hope die. It is a cruel view, ignoring the national loss of hope, and cynically playing on the idea of hope as a tool of manipulation.

However, when Georg addresses the issue of suicide by saying that it is not "self-murder", because it is not linked to passion or blood-lust, but springs from a loss of hope. In other words, in cases of suicide, hope dies first then the person. And one of the things the movie shows us is the birth of hope in Georg (and in Wiesler, of course), and the loss of it in Christa -- as well as the attendant consequences for each of them.

While I agree with Doug that

Wiesler's transformation came somewhat too easily, I thought it was believable because it coincided with several key developments: through an emerging attraction to art and beauty, through an emerging horror at the abuses he saw, and through an awareness of his own longings.

To think that the East Germans emerged from the nightmare of Nazism into the chilling emptiness of that sort of totalitarian society! There would have been many 20th century Germans whose entire lives would have been marked by tyranny and oppression. Indeed, the 40-somethings of this film would have known nothing else. No wonder hope was in short supply.

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While I agree with Doug that

Wiesler's transformation came somewhat too easily

...

Great post Tim. The more I reflect on the Wiesler's transformation the more I personally think it wasn't really too easy, but perhaps the clues to the long passage of time are not quite obvious enough.

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Thanks, Christian, for alerting me to the update at Dreher's post. FWIW, as I noted at my blog, I am not so sure that Christie was merely making a subtle joke based on her experience with Doctor Zhivago (1965). While it might be that the film which made her a star happened to take a negative view of the Russian Revolution (it has been so long since I saw the film, I can't quite recall), Christie herself seems to have gone through a political "awakening" following that film, thanks to her affair with Warren Beatty in the late '60s and early '70s -- so much so that Beatty dedicated Reds (1981), which I gather was a more positive take on the Russian Revolution, to her. A recent interview with Christie in the Toronto Star also described her getting misty-eyed as she realized that Canada was no longer quite as leftist as it was during the Commie-friendly Trudeau years (though we're not exactly a bastion of hardcore conservatism, either).

Edited by Peter T Chattaway

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Slavoj Zizek on The Lives of Others and Good Bye Lenin (sample quotes: "In this way, the horror that was inscribed into the very structure of the East German system is relegated to a mere personal whim. What's lost is that the system would be no less terrifying without the minister's personal corruption, even if it were run by only dedicated and 'honest' bureaucrats. . . . One cannot but recall here a witty formula of life under a hard Communist regime: Of the three features -- personal honesty, sincere support of the regime and intelligence -- it was possible to combine only two, never all three. If one was honest and supportive, one was not very bright; if one was bright and supportive, one was not honest; if one was honest and bright, one was not supportive. The problem with Dreyman is that he does combine all three features. . . . Finally, there is a weird twist to the story that blatantly contradicts historical fact. In all known cases of a married couple where a spouse betrayed a partner, it was always a man who became an informant -- in Lives, it is the woman, Christa-Maria, who breaks down and betrays her husband. Isn't the reason for this weird distortion the film

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yank_eh   

just watched part of the making of. The director talks about how the story was first conceived: he pictured a man in a dark room listening to beautiful music he didn't want to hear. I love that.

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