Idealism vs Pragmatism
by Aritra Dey
TLR Rating: 9 Reels.
Germany is a misunderstood country, thanks to the aftermath of the two bloody wars fought at the turn of the 20th century. The European nation faced the worst of the brunt both times, but got up again, seemingly stronger and invincible than before. ‘Resolute’ is one adjective one generally uses to describe a German with ‘hard-working’, ‘brilliant’ and ‘tenacious’ being a few others. ‘Creativity’, however, is something which the layman doesn’t associate a German with. Be it due the American portrayal of the nation as a bunch of bloodthirsty savages or the general apathy to the nation as a whole due to the one-sided history taught in the primary schools, more than half the world visualizes the central European nation as bad machines who have turned good. In reality however, Germany has been the home for plenty of scholars, artists, musicians and authors. Beethoven, Schumann and Brahms are a few of the many composers from this nation. Like all of its talent, the filmmakers too find it difficult to attain international recognition. Compared to its Italian or French counterparts, German cinema is obscure in the eyes of the international audience. This year, I had the fortune of watching two German films, which made me turn my head and look at the nation with a newfound reverence. After the mysterious coming-of-age thriller ‘Lena Love’, the 2006 recipient of the Best Foreign Film at the Academy Awards and Golden Globes, ‘The Lives of Others’ was on my watch list. ‘Exquisite’ is the adjective I would like to use for it.
There is no point in being loud to express ones’ opinion – great films have proven that time and time again. Everything about ‘The Lives of Others’ was quietly done; the scary moments, the heroics, the tension and the finale were all shown with an eerie calm. It tells the story of an idealist Stasi agent as he is given the task of surveying a prominent East German playwright who has managed to draw the ire of a top general. During his task however, he finds out the corruption within the ranks and that he is just a pawn used in a selfish game. His morality takes over and he plays a major hand in clearing the name of the under surveillance playwright. Gerd Wiesler aka HGW XX/7 is a renowned Stasi agent and a feared interrogator. He is passive and takes the code of his duties seriously. He believes in the ideals of the party and conducts his tasks with utmost reverence. He teaches the art of interrogation and the hacks of differentiating liars and innocents. As his friend and official superior Lt. Col. Anton Grubitz remarks casually, he had always been a brilliant student. If Wiesler is an idealist, Grubitz is an outright pragmatist. He finds no wrong when the Minister of Culture, Bruno Hempf, decides to survey prominent playwright, Georg Dreyman and expose him as he coveted his girlfriend, a renowned actress, Christa-Maria Sieland. Grubitz is happy with the attention he gains when the minister confers the task upon him. Wiesler begins his surveying with rapt attention, noting down every moment of relevance inside Dreyman’s apartment. His ideals take a hit when he finds out about the lecherous plans Minister Hempf and when Grubitz rebuffs his stance on the party being about its principles rather than the men. A wave of humanity and compassion takes over Wiesler and he beings his role as a silent guardian, protecting Dreyman from the Stasi and even suggesting a ramp down on the surveillance as there was nothing of note going on. He even steps out in incognito to dissuade Christa from succumbing to the advances of Minister Hempf and she reconciles with Dreyman soon after. When an article about increasing suicide rates in East Germany written by Dreyman who was horrified with the treatment meted out to his fellow intellectuals, gets published in a noted West German magazine, the Stasi is livid. Grubitz warns Wiesler about the consequences of treachery and forces him to interrogate Christa, who under duress, reveals the location of the illegal typewriter which was used to compose the article. Wiesler intervenes at a crucial point, removing the typewriter from its hidden position before the Stasi arrived but couldn’t prevent the suicide of a guilt ridden Christa. Wiesler was demoted to opening letters in the basement when the news of the ‘Fall of the Berlin Wall’ arrived. Dreyman learns of the surveillance from Hempf much later and discovers HGW XX/7 to be his guardian angel. He writes a book and when Wiesler sees it, he remarks to the store-keeper in English, ‘This one is for me’.
Every noteworthy movie is made up of certain moments which separate them from the rest. ‘The Lives of Others’, too, had some very beautiful moments which highlighted the humanity, amidst the inhuman practices carried out the morally ambiguous Stasi. The death of black listed East German director, Albert Jerska, was one of the saddest moments of the movie and that instance was highlighted by the soulful piano piece, ‘Sonata for a Good Man’, composed by Gabriel Yared. Dreyman, being a good friend, mourns Jerska by playing the composition while Wielser, whose soul has transposed into the ‘Lives of Others’, listens intently consumed by emotion while a single tear creeps down his eye. While he returns home, he encounters a small boy in the lift whose innocent remark about his father’s anti-Stasi stance prompts Wiesler’s instinctive police mentality to take over. But his new found humanity wins in the end and he ends up asking quite an irrelevant question to the small boy. The character of Georg Dreyman was written sympathetically, as a pro-Communist artist angered by the treatment meted out to his kind by the strict Stasi. The moment where he finds about is benefactor is beautiful indeed and it plays out well with the audience who would perhaps have been a bit bitter if the dots hadn’t been connected. The final scene when Wiesler finds about the book written about him is marvelous and speaks volumes even though only a couple of lines were spoken. The inner joy is evident in the hard face of the stoic Wiesler when he discovers his acts appreciated by Dreyman and the goodness of humanity flashes a big smile.
It is hard to believe that ‘The Lives of Others’ is actually director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck debut work. It is amazing to see the magnanimous impact of humanity on the life of a Stasi agent using so very few words. There are no shouts, no blasts of the gun or anything which generally highlights a scene of vivid tension. The moment when Grubitz steps on the loose floorboard where the illegal typewriter was supposed to be hidden was one of the tensest in the film and could easily have been overplayed with a loud music or any highlighter. But it was eerily quiet and passive and somehow it fitted well with the secretive aura which the secretive Stasi was infamous for. The constant transitions between the watch station where Wiesler was sitting like a hawk and the Dreyman apartment was excellent and it helped the audience get into the skins of the watcher and the watched. The two contrasting mentalities of the male protagonists could be empathized easily and the viewer associated fully with ‘The Lives of the Others’. The opening shot of the infamous Hohenschönhausen prison was a stroke of genius. The entrance of a suspect in the den of Wiesler gave the impression of a horror play to the viewer and one could identify the scary aura of the interrogator and the hard hand cruelty of the East German faithful.
The late Ulrich Mühe gave his last and best performance as Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler. The cold dead eyes, limited facial expression and upright stance fitted the character immensely. Even though he spoke little, with both eyes and body, Ulrich personified the idealist to the core. The quiet, mysterious nature was brought about excellently by him and it was in fact the performance of a lifetime. His death a year later shook the German film world and truly, the world of cinema lost a gifted actor, who perhaps could have been utilized more. Ulrich Tukur as Grubitz was impressive too. His sarcastic takes on everything were highlighted by the constantly wandering eyes, which suggested a jovial nature masking a venomous snake underneath. His pragmatic take contrasted well with the idealism of Ulrich Mühe’s Wiesler. Sebastian Koch as Georg Dreyman performed well in the emotional moments when demanded, but somehow his efforts were always overshadowed by the superiority of Ulrich Mühe and the general weakness of his character.
‘The Lives of Others’ is one of the best European films to be made in the recent times. The depth of the characters portrayed in European films is really amazing and remains one of the highlights of its cinematic superiority over its Hollywood counterparts. There are a few films made on the East German conditions during the Cold War and Donnersmarck’s masterpiece is an eye-opener for an unexplored genre. It is certainly one of the worthiest recipients of the golden statuette. The battle between idealism and pragmatism is so ever engaging, making it a wonderful example of filmmaking. Do keep it in your watch list, for you are sure to be enamored by it.
The author is a software engineer at Infosys and a passionate film and football buff, with a special interest in deciphering the literature behind the movies.