(originally published in The Outreach Connection in March 2007)
The German film The Lives of Others, directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, won the Best Foreign Film Oscar this year, and is a most worthy entry in Germany’s continuing dissection of its taxing past century. In 1984 East Germany (five years before the demise of the Wall and then the country) a stiff-necked Stasi (secret police) officer is given a surveillance assignment, to uncover the suspected subversive activities of a notable playwright and his girlfriend, an esteemed actress. The officer has little personal life or inspiration beyond occasionally hiring a whore, and he is strangely moved by the interaction of his two subjects. At the same time, he becomes attuned to the moral and ethical corruption of the system within which he’s spent his life, including the basically sordid motives behind the investigation. Eventually his spying starts to bear fruit, but instead of taking this back to his superiors, he fabricates bland reports. The complications that follow make for a fascinating narrative, loaded with significant moral and political weight.
The Lives of Others
The film depicts a ruling system that’s totally lost its ideological bearings, serving only to crush or warp everyone within it. At the start the playwright appears relatively content, subject to being allowed some minimum room for personal expression and some basic human tolerance; it’s only the excesses of the state, particularly in hounding a colleague of his to suicide, that radicalizes him. Likewise, the officer’s unquestioning loyalty starts to erode only when his superiors flaunt their pragmatism too blatantly. But the film is also I think about the power of art in a totalitarian state, for it’s clear that the officer – initially a strenuous Philistine – becomes infatuated with his subjects’ ability to connect, and comes to perceive his actions partly as his own aesthetic creation, played out with real lives and consequences instead of on a stage.
The Lives of Others is a film of drab grays, communicating the failure of the Socialist promise in every miserable frame. The trajectory of the officer, particularly as we follow the next ten years of his life in the film’s epilogue, has an almost Chaplin-like pathos to it at times. The film is too much an artistic creation to be completely convincing I think – there’s a considerable compression of events, and at times Henckel von Donnersmarck’s masterly control comes at the cost of a sense of spontaneity (although as I said, that’s part of the point). But these aren’t particularly significant caveats. Some people have said it’s the best film about surveillance since The Conversation, and although that may be true, I barely thought about that aspect of it at the time, perhaps because the bugging and snooping is so clearly a mere symptom of a society where all claim of meaningful self-determination has long been extinguished. As for the Oscar stakes, I think Pan’s Labyrinth would have been the better winner, for the greater breadth of its vision, but The Lives of Others is certainly one of the more deserving victors of the last twenty years.
Hannibal Rising is the fourth film about the charismatically intellectual cannibal introduced in Manhunter and catapulted into legend by The Silence of the Lambs, this time going way back to his formative years in WW2 Lithuania. Hannibal is a nice little boy, living in the bosom of his family, and very protective of his little sister, which sets him up for psychological turmoil when he witnesses her being eaten by a bunch of scuzzy militia (led by my old schoolmate Rhys Ifans). Hannibal grows up in an orphanage, eventually hooking up with his aunt by marriage, played by Gong Li, weirdly out of place in such tacky material, but no less fascinating for that. He goes to medical school and then of course embarks on the quest to track the scumbags down one by one, along the way becoming more depraved at every turn.
As others have pointed out, there’s something very wrongheaded about trying to devise a quasi-respectable, psychologically motivated background for a character who so inherently epitomizes high-end pulp fiction, and the film’s painterly aspects just compound this nonsense. The movie’s biggest act of cannibalism is in taking director Peter Webber, so promising at the helm of Girl with a Pearl Earring, and corralling him into this; it’s well enough put together, and surprisingly (pointlessly) restrained at times, but never has zero potential of transcending extreme wretchedness. Hannibal is played by Gaspard Ulliel, who’s allowed to embarrass himself with shallow, grimacing work.
Factory Girl is another visit to the (apparently) endlessly fascinating milieu of Andy Warhol and the Factory, this one focusing on Edie Sedgwick who was his golden girl for a few years before they drifted apart, precipitating her decline into drugs and premature death. Sienna Miller plays Edie, and she’s quite good on the downslide, but never conveys what made Edie seem quite so special in the first place. This is largely the fault of a vague, rushed narrative that lacks much period flavour, depth or continuity. Try to imagine how such a movie might look – the big close-ups of Edie talking to the camera (via her therapist), the highs of activity captured in snappy musical montages, the traumatic drugged-out scenes, the embarrassing public flame-outs, it’s all here, exactly as you’re visualizing it right now.
Guy Pearce plays Warhol, and he’s pretty good, but the film doesn’t seem interested in more than the same old Warhol mannerisms and affectations (maybe it’s because I saw the very good David Cronenberg-curated exhibition at the AGO last year that this all seemed particularly shallow and pointless). And then Hayden Christensen plays a version of Bob Dylan, which is just an utter waste of celluloid. As directed by George Hickenlooper, the film feels pretty pleased with itself, but I can’t think of one good reason to see it.
The Russian film The Italian belongs comfortably in the long tradition of films that depict childhood innocence and resourcefulness in strained or violent circumstances. The setting here is a miserable modern-day orphanage, from which the prize children are sold off to wealthy foreign couples; one boy is designated for Italy, but instead becomes preoccupied with finding his birth mother, and takes off on an unlikely quest. The film is a sobering depiction of a coarse, often violent environment, in many ways on the verge of breakdown, although the focus on the boy prevents it from getting too heavy. The happy ending is unconvincing but not grating in the circumstances, because the underlying point seems to be about the need to transcend these sad truths, and to do that within Russia’s own confines rather than through soul destroying transactions with the rest of the world.