The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen, 2006) is recently out, in the UK, on DVD. The film is extraordinary, in any number of ways. Its central heroic figure was the actor himself, one Ulrich Mühe, whose gaunt, sad-beautiful face (as above) captured so many Academy voters' hearts and minds earlier this year, when the film won the best Foreign Language Picture Oscar - not least because the man later died from cancer after flying to Hollywood to be present at the film's success. It emerged that he had known he was dying as he made the film, imbuing his already-haunted performance with an other layer of stoic, even profound, grandeur. And it is a great performance.
News that Hollywood wants to do an English version remake seems rather gross, in the circumstances, laying a new actor over this beautiful, unique performance, but, worse, redundant. The Lives of Others is a curiously American film - complete with romantic score replete with soaring strings, three-act structure, and the infamous "Hollywood ending". Not less than some Speilberg film (as in Schindler's List) historical horrors once thought nearly unspeakable (one laments the death of the last mime to know that the Holocaust also asks for silence) - in this instance communist cruelty behind the Berlin wall, in 1984 (hardly a subtle year) - are terminated as in a happy therapy, with an ending that sees a completed character arc, and a lost man redeemed. Liberal humanism's values restore the balance. All is good.
I think The Lives of Others is a superb film, brilliantly photographed and acted, and the screenplay is complex, and flattering to the intellectuals (or film critics) who swooned for it (as did I, so quickly I revisit my love with some form of meditation). It flatters artists and intellectuals, because they are shown in a positive light - even the suicides and drug addicts are ultimately beautiful, either spiritually, or physically. At the heart of the film are several love relationships - between a writer and his actress, between a powerful and cruel government minister and the actress, and between the writer, who is handsome and good, and the "good Stasi" agent, who spies on the mythically wonderful artists, and thereby is redeemed by art.
As Arendt, and others, have shown (and recent death camp footage confirms) it was possible to listen to (even play) Beethoven, and still be a sadistic killer. Art, it has long been known, does not redeem, or transform, the citizen. If it did, the wealthy few patrons who support opera and art galleries in America would be saints. They are not. In this lovely utopian film, a reading of Brecht's sensuous love poetry, and the observation of doomed, sexually-charismatic geniuses, compels a sea-change of the soul. I realise the film emphasises that one needs to "really listen, really hear" the music, to be changed for the better, but that seems somehow a circular argument, worthy of a theology of predestination - for who but an already angelic listener is capable of truly listening so well their soul can be made pure?
Of course, the villain is a system - Communism - that engineers souls. The hero, the surveillance man, like in The Conversation, but this time in Technicolour, finds a couple that short-circuits the system, and souls are allowed to escape. It is notable that the woman has to be sacrificed on the altar of drama, so that the two men can - in true Western buddy-style - bond at the end, sharing a trans-historical epiphany. If you write it, he will come.
What the film fails to suggest is how capitalism - the alternative economic system on the other side of the wall - sets its own destructive forces against artists - not least in the way it emphasises a competitive, market model, for the funding, creation, publication, dissemination, and reception / evaluation of art work. Damien Hirst is famous because he commands money for his work, as much as for any "inherent" value of the work. Artists in America, Canada, and England, "liberated" by a market economy, sell out, and are betrayed, in other, various ways. Hollywood, and the German film industry is a satellite of that system, is the first exemplar of such a punishing regime.
I want to believe this film is true. That a good man can be redeemed by beauty, and that art can in turn capture, and reward, such goodness. For history, good and evil seem too simple, the terms are far more compromised. Still, Germany has a new wunderkind director, and, also, another star, in the charismatic Sebastian Koch - who appeared in another great film of 2006, Black Book. Koch seems to me the most handsome, impressive European actor now working in film, and, on his way to greater roles, he would, at the very least, make a superb Bond villain.
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