Tuesday, May 8, 2007

The Lives of Others

I initially came across the preview for The Lives of Others when I went to an independent theater to see Into Great Silence. In-step with most independent film fare these days, the preview emphasized the voyeuristic sexual encounters suggested by the movie's title. For all those who live under the delusion that "independent" is consonant with "artistic", it's a hard truth that independent film has all the same vices as mainstream, except the depravity is different in nature, being more eccentric and, in my estimation, more disgusting. My initial misgivings were finally overcome by several positive reviews, which portrayed it as both spiritually deep and challenging and not the peeping-tom adolescent fantasy the preview made it out to be. I was not disappointed.

As the Clinton years were the ideal backdrop for a golden age of comedy, cold war tensions were fertile ground for churning out taut political thrillers. Director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck (a name Steve Sailor described as "heel-clickingly Teutonic") has produced a movie that differs markedly from most movies set during cold-war (perhaps due to Donnersmark's lack of anglo-centric perspective). The story centers on two true communist believers, an artist and a secret policeman, and their eventual disillusionment with a political system that sucks the spiritual life out of its populace. The artist, played with boyish enthusiasm by Sebastian Koch, puts faith in man and man's ability to transform his nature; the policeman, on the other hands, ardently believes in the political system. The two character's worlds collide through the power posturing of the communist elite, a world where truth is merely a pragmatic weapon. The movie's beauty lies on the subtle spiritual regeneration of both characters-- I won't give away any more because I'm already dangerously close to spoilers.

My old political science professor loved to harp on the most prevalent feelings in communist countries: boredom and despair. Donnersmarck places these feelings front and center and powerfully dramatizes them. It's the first cold-war movie I've seen (perhaps there are others) that places such an emphasis on the rape of man's soul under communism.

Visually, Donnersmarck's austere and restrained style is magnificent. Never does he detract us away from what's dramatically important or fall into the trap of giving into the insecure need to sensually excite the audience. He doesn't even use editing's rhythmic power to force thrills on us by shortening each scene in building to a climax; he simply lets the drama speak for itself. Through dark gray color tonalities and claustrophobic framing, He effectively creates a world of stultifying despair.

See this movie! Be warned though-- It's rated "R" and for a good reason. The more salacious scenes are not gratuitous though, and are carefully filmed so as to reveal poignant insights rather than to prick our nerve endings. One particular lascivious scene, for example, is carefully filmed in a repugnant way in order to expose the character's spiritual death. Still, it should be noted before going to see it.

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