Top Fifty Films of the 00s — Number Thirty-One

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#31 — The Lives of Others (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, 2006)
Though we’re trained to believe otherwise, change usually happens incrementally. The misconception is fueled by newscasts and history textbooks that portray great social changes growing out singular events, tipping points that immediately and decisively transform everything. Movies stand as one of the greatest perpetrators of this myth, the need to pack as much conflict and drama into a relatively shorting running time leads to short cuts. Storytelling tropes trump the verisimilitude of onscreen life progressing in rough accordance with the world that stares at the screen, hoping for insight and entertainment. Thankfully, that’s not how Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s The Lives of Others operates. The significant changes that the main character goes through happen gradually. They sneak up in such a way that we practically feel the transformation happening before we recognize it onscreen. It is so organically realized that we as viewers experience it instead of witness it.

It helps immeasurably that the main character in question is wonderfully well-drawn and beautifully acted. Played by Ulrich Muhe, he is a captain with East Germany’s secret police in the mid-eighties, just a few years before the Berlin Wall came down and everything changed. Muhe’s character is a loyalist. Even as some of his colleagues shrug off the dangers of rebellious thought and action, demonstrating a growing indifference to Cold War dogma that arguably represents early chips in that imposing structure that splits the city and the country, Muhe projects rigidity and commitment to the cause. Even in these scenes, the performance isn’t one-note. Muhe brings nuance to his character, showing how it’s intelligence and integrity that fuels his conformity. He arrives as a fully formed individual, thoughtful and intriguing.

He is called upon to conduct surveillance on a famous writer, a playwright whom government officials speculate is engaging in subversive activities. The writer’s apartment is bugged and a listening station is set up in the attic of the building, agents listening in on everything said within those rooms and typing up reports for their superiors. As the captain becomes more fascinated with his subject, particularly drawn in by his sensible, pragmatic views, he also discovers cause to doubt the motives of his bosses, and, by extension, the very morality of the government that he has given over his life to. This arrives not with a jarring epiphany, but with a slowly dawning new worldview. We see him learn, reconsider, reshape himself. Every alteration we see him go through makes complete sense. Indeed, it’s often the only logical conclusion that he, or the film, could possibly reach.

The Lives of Others is alive with ideas, and von Donnersmarck explores them all with patience and depth. He is not aggressively making a point. Instead, he is telling a story, confident that his points will emerge. The film benefits from the sense of a country struggling with its own past, building tension from the simple examination of a time that is distant enough that its easy to file it amongst other bygone trouble, but recent enough that the threats and fears still echo. There’s a hint of the cautionary in that element of the film, a warning issued firmly but without stooping to alarmist didacticism. The impositions on freedom and privacy can happen anywhere and at any time, especially in an era when governments and their citizens are shamefully prone to jettisoning personal inviolability in the name of supposed protection from uncertain and ill-defined global villainy. Inches turn into miles in the time it takes for a tape to be transcribed. Before anyone can act in defense, the very things that were being protected from outside interlopers have been stripped away with our own complicity.

The thesis resounds in the film, but dwelling on its political messages shortchanges the dramatic accomplishments. Among the many successes of the film, it is a splendid thriller. It does not brim over with car chases, explosions or other amplified markers of films designed to quicken the pulse. It achieves its excitement more quietly, and, as a result, more compellingly. The measured approach taken by von Donnersmarck calls to mind the casual expertise of Alfred Hitchcock at his least stylized. He surveys the situations he has set up with his smartly constructed script and proceeds with the certainty that the smallest moments–key discoveries, the looming promise of ill turns, clever acts of surreptitious protection–will have an impact without thrumming adornment. The understated triumphs of the film continue up the final line of dialogue, a simple declarative statement that delivers a inspired closing message: the toughest sacrifices are often the worthiest.

(Posted simultaneously to “Jelly-Town!”)

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