Tuesday, March 06, 2007

The Lives of Others and Black Book

The Lives of Others

There was a video floating around the Net a few months back of a UCLA student being violently Tasered by Campus Police Officers, for the serious offense of not showing them his student ID in the library. I wrote about it, along with some other issues, here. What was so shocking was not just the brutality of Tasering a young person for the crime of not having a proper ID, but the fact that the cops continued to shock the guy long after he was clearly incapacitated. Other students are crying out, begging for them to stop, but they do not.

If I had to guess why, I'd say it's the same reason that Police Departments across the nation have been having trouble with Taser-happy officers. It's human nature. Give one group of individuals supreme, unchecked power over another group of individuals, and they will use it. Now that police are being issued Tasers in greater numbers, they are using them more. Because they can.

It's a pretty simple principle, one of the best arguments against the sort of invasive, aggressive Executive Power to which Dick Cheney and George W. Bush aspire. Those in power, I suppose, will always want to increase the level of control they can exert over as many other individuals as possible, which is why no single person or small group should ever be given unrestricted, unmonitored access to our nation's terrifying intelligence-gathering infrastructure. It's an Orwell novel waiting to happen (or, depending on your view, already past the prologue and well into its introductory chapter).

Which, in a roundabout way, brings me to the recent Oscar winner for Best Foreign Film of 2006) The Lives of Others, the story of a committed socialist and Stasi (East German Secret Police) officer who slowly discovers he's devoted his life to a sham. In the East Berlin of the '80s, Hauptmann Wiesler (Ulrich Muhe) takes his surveillance job too seriously, running into an essential paradox. To excel at watching, he must pay attention, but the system of which he is a part cannot stand up to scrutiny. In serving his nation, he becomes compelled to destroy it.

Wiesler's been assigned by the odious Cabinet Minister Hempf (Thomas Thieme) to make trouble for the State's favorite playwright, Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch). As an artist, Dreyman associates with a few subversives, but he's not much of a radical himself, contenting himself with writing safe, pro-Socialist plays starring his beautiful actress wife, Christa-Maria (Martina Gedeck). Hempf doesn't want him taken down because he's a genuine threat; he just wants Dreyman out of the picture so he can pursue the man's wife.

At first, Wiesler doesn't let this information bother him. He's a good follower and a devoted Stasi officer. Muhe does a terrific job of combining a fierce intelligence with a learned obedience. Wiesler's clearly a man that could have excelled in a real job, doing something more important than spying on strangers in the hopes of ruining their lives. But over time, watching Hempf and the cruel beurocratic apparatus at his disposal destroy Dreyman becomes too much to bear. (It's also hinted at that Wiesler's a lonely man who fantasizes about relationships with Christa-Maria and Dreyman to fill a void in his own life, but let's see it's the cruel beurocratic apparatus for the purposes of this review).

At about the halfway point, the film shifts from a thoughtful historical drama into a full-blown Hitchcockian thriller. Wiesler winds up taking some incredible risks, concealing the nature of his surveillance from Dreyman and Christa-Maria while keeping the majority of his findings out of the hands of his superiors at the Stasi. Tightly-wound, perfectly shot and edited suspense sequences pepper the film's entire second half, culminating in a fevered search for a hidden typewriter that's reminiscent of the Master's work in Rope.

Writer-director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck (making his audacious debut with this film) cleverly uses Wiesler's dilemma to mirror the paranoid duplicity in which all East Germans have been forced to exist. His applied scrutiny has placed countless other people into this very situation, watching as someone methodically and pointlessly condemns you to a life in prison or even execution, and now it is Wiesler's turn to sweat.

One brilliant scene has Wielser sharing an elevator with a precocious child, who asks if he's really a member of the Secret Police. When the child lets slip that his father has sternly warned him about speaking to the Stasi, going so far as to pepper the entire organization with insults, Wiesler is tempted to ask for the father's name. He holds back, but we sense that, just as easily, he could have the man reported, questioned and potentially destroyed. Over a child's mistake.

The final 20 minutes or so of the film is taken up with a largely unnecessary epilogue. To his credit, Von Donnersmarck closes the film on an emotional beat that feels significant, with a nice freeze-frame profile of his hero in a rare moment of happiness. But he could have ended the film without all of this last-minute business and it would have been as effective, if not more so. I'm just not a big fan of ending a film with a "Four Years Later" or whatever, unless it's really really urgent to do so. (Another, significantly worse, film that annoyed me with its epilogue was Matchstick Men. What the hell do we need that endless little scene in the carpet store for? Just end that sucker already, Rid!)

But this is a nitpick. Lives of Others deserved its Oscar (way more than Pan's Labyrinth), and it's a fairly remarkable debut for Von Donnersmarck with a lot of resonance at this moment in history.

Black Book

Lots of similarities between these two films. Both European films from 2006, produced or co-produced by Germany. Both feature Sebastian Koch in significant roles. Both include what, for me, felt like unnecessary epilogues. And both deal with dying totalitarian systems, pressing down on the main characters with greater and greater force as its last glimmers of hope fade out.
Set in Occupied Holland during the waning days of the Third Reich (several mentions are made of Russian troops positioning outside Berlin), Paul Verhoeven's brutal, pulpy WWII adventure Black Book tells a remarkable (and mostly fictional) story about a remarkable woman who quite simply refuses to die, despite considerable efforts to bring this about.

Combining the bleak desperation of Resistance classics like Army of Shadows with the high-flying '60s war/action genre, Verhoeven has made an extraordinarily entertaining, even brisk, epic. It's historically accurate, bold and intelligent, sure, but it's real strength is watchability. The film's 150 minutes absolutely flew by.

Rachel Stein (Carice van Houton) fully expects to wait out the war in her attic hiding spot until its blown up by a passing German plane. Setting out with her family in tow for asylum in Belgium, she is ambushed by Nazi soldiers. Though Rachel escapes with her life, everyone she cared about has died.

Eventually, she finds her way into the Dutch Resistance, who want her to seduce a high-ranking Gestapo official, Ludwig Muntze (Koch again) and bug his office. She agrees. The remainder of the film is a war film, a detective story, a romance and a thriller all wrapped into one blood-soaked, delirious little Verhoeven package of joy. This guy's films are just alive, bursting with energy and surprises.

He spoke at the Aero Theater after the film last night, and confessed at one point that he doesn't consider how an audience will react when making a film. He thinks about what works on him, and simply assumes that some in his audience will feel the same way. All I can say is, PV and I are on the same wavelength.

There are so many double-crosses, close calls and unexpected turns, I wouldn't even know how to ruin the movie for you if I wanted to. It opens in April and you should just go see it for yourself.

Van Houten does an amazing job as Rachel (who goes by Ellis de Vries for most of the film), who like every other character is essentially a mass of contradictions posing as a confident individual. She has recently watched Nazis gun down an entire family, yet finds a way to feel compassion for Muntze. And though she's sleeping with this man out of duty and not for pleasure, Van Houten brings an unexpected playfulness to the love scenes. Could she be enjoying the very transgressiveness of the act of fucking a Nazi? Or is it the inherent thrill of espionage, the opportunity to not only lie but to live within a false identity?

When Rachel/Ellis reveals her true identity to fellow Nazi girlfriend Ronnie (Halina Reijn), the reaction she finds is not anger or shock but curiosity. "You're a spy? How exciting? What's that like, then?"

The cinematography by Karl Walter Lindenlaub is also stellar. Verhoeven discussed how they attempted to give the film kind of an Old Hollywood, '40s vibe to match the period in which the film is set. I felt, as I said before, that it more closely resembled the gritty '60s WWII action film. Movies like Where Eagles Dare and The Great Escape introduce noble characters fighting small-scale but extremely significant battles against massive, nearly-unstoppable and thoroughly evil regimes, and that's what we have here. Minus the nobility. Verhoeven and co-writer Gerard Soeteman (who first devised this story when they were working on Soldier of Orange some 25 years ago) have fashioned several mini-missions of his characters, each progressively more difficult and of more dire importance, and the result is just one propulsive, edgy sequence after another.

In place of those older film's relatively straightforward good-vs-evil dichotomy, Verhoeven refuses to oversimplify. Some Nazis are incredibly evil, sure, but they're all human as well. Some of them don't seem to take the whole Nazi thing all that seriously, even. Likewise, the Dutch Resistance are not, to a man, likable and noble and impressive of character. Dolf de Vries in particular does great work as a lawyer who never seems totally trustworthy, but who gives no reason to doubt his sincere intentions.

Even the happy ending isn't really all that happy. Without blowing the final sequence, it ends on a decidedly ambiguous note, implying that even if Rachel can escape the horrors of the Nazi Occupation, neither she nor anyone else can ever really find real safety in this world of violence. It's one of a few truly chilling, immediate moments in the film, another being a torture sequence in which Nazis hold a man underwater to simulate the sensation of drowning. That Verhoeven dares to jolt an audience in this fashion, to introduce remarkably pointed social commentary in the midst of what's ostensibly a period adventure film, to me speaks to his bravery and confidence as a filmmaker.

Here's the somewhat NSFW international trailer, with relatively poor but somewhat amusing English subtitles:

1 comment:

Konrad said...

Perfect review Lonny, thanks!