Thank you Tom Hanson for insisting that I put The Lives of Others at the top of my Netflix queue. As in the past Germany has lived in something of denial about life in East Germany until just under a couple of decades ago. As with Nazism and the Holocaust they don’t like to talk about it too much, particularly as many of the people who were responsible for injustice against their fellow citizens have blended in well during the integration with the west and are now businesspeople, political leaders, and otherwise legal and apparently guilt impervious neighbors with people whom they spied on, informed on, and had arrested. I guess the idea is that in such an extreme system it was difficult to survive without making serious compromises of humanity, and this movie is one of very few German pop-culture attempts thus far to deal with the issues in any meaningful manner.
The premise revolves around a quote the filmmaker attributes to Lenin about not being able to listen to Mozart lest he lose the resolve to fight the revolution. The lead is a Stasi agent assigned to conduct audio surveillance on a prominent artistic couple. He is a purist, a true state loyalist, and suspects the couple of something even before his superior orders him onto the case. His confidence in the righteousness of his cause are almost immediately undermined when he learns of corrupt motivations behind the investigation, and further undermined as the music, art, and integrity of the people whom he is spying on begin to move him. The film doesn’t try too hard to shore up the plot with plausibility, though it makes some reasonable efforts.
The officer is played by the late Ulrich Muhe (with an umlaut) who had in real life resided in East Germany where his ex-wife reportedly informed on him (she has vehemently denied this despite official records which seem to make it clear). The story only makes the film itself more compelling.
Before he died, William F. Buckley saw the film and said it was the best he’d ever seen. Ironically, criticism that the movie soft pedals the oppression in the GDR comes from a source on the left. Slavoj Zizek (I don’t know how to do the little umlaut-like things above the letters) made the following points in a review for In These Times:
Like so many other films depicting the harshness of Communist regimes, The Lives of Others misses their true horror. How so? First, what sets the film’s plot in motion is the corrupt minister of culture, who wants to get rid of the top German Democratic Republic (GDR) playwright, Georg Dreyman, so he can pursue unimpeded an affair with Dreyman’s partner, the actress Christa-Maria. In this way, the horror that was inscribed into the very structure of the East German system is relegated to a mere personal whim. What’s lost is that the system would be no less terrifying without the minister’s personal corruption, even if it were run by only dedicated and “honest” bureaucrats.
It’s a point well made. The lead character, before his conversion, is more scary to me than the corruption. The true-believers are the most dangerous to basic liberty. But this isn’t a docudrama. It’s a story about the versatility of humanity even when we as a species construct situations which threaten to wipe it out. And it doesn’t oversell the concept. The conversion is not sudden, and it’s not dramatic. The ending is perfect.
I just watched Religulous, and while I find Bill Maher’s take and approach hilarious, it’s really not informative. He interviews an assortment of nutcases, morons, and con-men to make his points. It would have been more informative, though perhaps not as entertaining, for him to have interviewed serious theologians with his questions.
On the DVD itself I strongly recommend the outtakes in the special features section. There you’ll find fragments of an interview with David Icke, someone who has received some attention around here.
In 1997 my wife signed us up for cable. I didn’t watch much of it, but one night I was “channel surfing” and came across some haunting urban cinematography with an equally haunting Celtic score. It immediately grabbed my attention, and within moments I was drawn into the story. I think I saw maybe three episodes, then life took me away from it, and I came back a couple of months later but it was gone. It was entitled EZ Streets, and now a few of the episodes are available on a DVD entitled Brilliant but Canceled: EZ Streets (Brilliant but Canceled is a series of DVDs with, well, what it says it is).
This was a well written, excellently acted, and brilliantly filmed series which aired in 1996, but the pinheads on CBS underestimated the audience and messed things up much the same way Firefly was messed up (episodes shown sparsely, and out of order – in fact they aired just about the same number of episodes as Firefly). It takes place in a decaying fictional city across the river from Canada (think Detroit, where it was probably filmed) and takes a multi-layered noir approach to television crime drama, with very blurred distinctions between good and evil. You’ve got a brooding cop played by Ken Olin perpetually trying to solve the mystery of his partner’s death. Joe Pantoliano plays his likable criminal adversary who weaves a dance through dark comic relief, genuine brotherly loyalty, and creepy malevolence. Caught in the middle is a morally conflicted ex-felon trying to find some footing on some very slippery ground. Their stories are backed by a very strong supporting cast with numerous fascinating characters. Like Firefly, anytime the story seems to drift towards anything remotely cliche, you’re yanked onto new terrain with a backdrop of barren subject photography of neighborhoods in disrepair and a Celtic music score which includes artists like Loreena McKennitt to let you know that a streak of romance laces an atmosphere of despair. It was too far ahead of its time.
I commented before on what I had characterized as “improvements” to The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. After rereading the story (to my children) and having viewed the newest film version from front to back, I’ve changed my mind. I’d previously complimented the film for altering the White Queen character, but really, they didn’t have any business doing that.
Let me start from the beginning. CS Lewis wrote the story. He was a Christian with socially conservative politics. As a young man he’d been an atheist and I think had some liberal if not socialist politics, and had been a feminist to a certain degree. His conversion led him to rethink his feminism and he concluded that feminism is a rebellion against God and his order. The Bible makes very clear that men have authority over women so he argued, and it’s in the nature of the “mystery” of the sexes that men should have decisional authority even if they are “equal” in intellectual and other respects. If you have any doubt read his novel Perelandara where emissaries from God and Satan visit a planet which has not yet fallen, both appealing to Perelandara’s “Eve” to go their way. A good portion of the arguments made the the Devil’s emissary were those made by feminists. God’s emissary argued the virtues of female submissiveness. When Eve gets confused, God’s emissary kills Satan’s emissary. That’s the story. Sorry if I’ve spoiled it.
In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Lewis depicted the Queen as cowardly and scheming in the very traditional female sense. That was his vision. You may not like it. I didn’t like it even as a kid. But that was his character. It was his story.
It was also in his story where Father Christmas delivers the gifts to the children and instructs the girls to stay out of the fighting. When one of the girls protests that she could be brave, F.C. responds, “that is not the point, war in which women fight is an ugly thing” or something like that. In the more PC movie version he simply tells her that war isn’t pretty, missing Lewis’ point and altering the message.
So, to make the story more palatable to me (and if you read my old comments on the film, you’ll see that it is indeed more palatable to me) and others likely to watch it, they stipped CS Lewis of his intention to offend me and make me think about it. He does so even more in Voyage of the Dawn Treader where cosmopolitan values are seen as more fashion than substance, and cultural simplicity (ie. what the average middle class white kids are into) are indicative of virtue and humility. I imagine that will be whitewashed from the upcoming film as well.
My point is, I don’t think they had the right to do that. I didn’t like it when feminism was stripped from Watchmen. I certainly don’t like the fact that none of the several version of War of the Worlds have been stripped of HG Wells’ original point, which was to present a parable in opposition to colonialism. I didn’t like it when the political allegories were removed from Wizard of Oz. I have a much different view of the world than CS Lewis, but his stories were his expressions. He has been deprived of his voice. It’s plagiarism as far as I’m concerned. They took something and appropriated it to their own uses without regard to its vitality.