Monday, May 7, 2007

LondonNet’s Cinema and Film Guide

LondonNet Film Review by Peter D. Clee
The Lives of OthersFlorian Henckel’s Oscar winning directorial debut is a taut thriller detailing the trauma of the watcher and the watched during the twilight days of communist East Germany (Deutsche Demokratik Republik - D.D.R.) in the mid-Eighties...
Captain Wiesler (Ulrich Muhe), a secret police officer of the Stasi (D.D.R. intelligence service), is seconded by his boss, Minister of Culture Bruno Hempf (Thomas Thieme), to spy on writer Georg Dreyman (Sebastien Koch), ostensibly due to his links to dissidents. In reality the snooping owes more to Hempf’s relationship with Dreyman’s actress lover Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Sieland) than the interests of the socialist state. Wiesler’s characteristically professional surveillance unravels as the observer becomes seduced by the beauty and truth of the observed.
What follows is the portrayal of the struggle between ‘free-thinking’ writers such as Dreyman and his cohorts – seeking to sneak out to the west an article concerning unreported suicides in the D.D.R – and the power of the centralised state apparatus personified by Wiesler and Hempf.
As a thriller this film is a huge success and an absolute-must-watch. Unfortunately for a project that seeks to get under the skin of the D.D.R., it fails on several levels.
Following on from the success of the hilarious and well-observed Goodbye Lenin by Wolfgang Becker, Henckel says he was determined to depict a more serious side of the pains of the East German administration. A worthwhile mission you might think, but in taking such a polarised starting point Henckel falls into the trap of the very truth distortion he so patently despises. As a resident of Berlin during the time depicted in this film, I can assure you that life in the East was not so grim as writer and director Henckel portrays.
One example of this manipulation of events is Henckel’s decision to film during the ‘dull and dreary months of October to December’. He told me that he deliberately wanted to avoid the romance of the snow strewn streets of January through February, the hope laden times of spring and the natural beauty of a Berlin summer. Well, it’s his film and it’s his call, but showing the city in its least flattering moments is hardly a fair portrayal of a divided city where life’s everyday happiness lived in equal measure with state orchestrated control.

Hencke seems to revel in the downfall of the ‘other Germany’. And well he might. As an aristocrat – full name Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck – he would have seen much to fear, even as an eleven year old at the time, living adjacent to the ‘worker’s paradise’. Indeed he trades off his aristocratic heritage, freely using the lordy-like ‘von Donnersmarck’ in film publicity. No self-respecting Berliner I knew with the ‘von’ nomenclature would have deigned to use it for financial or social gain – particularly in the arts.
That said, Muhe – himself successfully sued by his ex-wife for comments he made of her Stasi involvement following the film’s release - is sensational as the troubled intelligence officer Wiesler. The rest of the cast perform admirably in their roles too, while the plot weaves some cunning turns into its over-length two-and-a-half hour run. But as a purportedly well-observed portrayal of life in the Soviet sector this film falls far short of any measure of historical accuracy.
Instead it crystallises the sense of West German (Wessie) triumphalism that followed the fall of the Wall. While this may be nectar to the bees of the American liberals and neo-cons in equal measure – hence the Oscar – to many Berliners and sympathetic guests such as myself it smacks of little more than rank privileged self-interest, which is a tragedy considering the otherwise strong cinematic quality that is so almost achieved.
- Peter D. Clee

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