adrin neatrour writes: It looks like an angel to me…. The Lives of Others F.H.von Donnersmarck Germany 2006 127 mins: Martina Gedeck; Ulrich Muhe; Sebastian Kock
Viewed: Star and Shadow Newcastle, 16 May 2007; Ticket price – £4-00
Looks like an angel to me
I don’t like movies with angels. Unless they’re in leathers and ride motorbikes angels seem to permit directors to indulge the most banal types of wish fulfilment. The Lives of Others(LO) is simply a dressed up retro guardian angel movie which allows director Donnersmarck to indulge a gentle fantasy that owes little to Honnecker’s East Germany and almost everything to Hollywood.
Set in 1983 LO is a long sentimentalised journey that uses the DDR ( East Germany) as a sort of comfortable backdrop against which to deliver a long shaggy dog tale. The East Germany Donnersmarck depicts in the film doesn’t exist as a place defined by a geography of tortured incongruities and contradictions. There is nothing in the camera work or the structure of the film that denotes the state as an enforcement system. Donnersmarck simply shoots his material as he might do a glossy American soap opera, as if the camera had nothing more that it could possibly add to the matter. The result is that visually the DDR is abstracted unreal sort of place. Like Dallas. There is no message from the past or for the future for us in this show. The vacuous cinematography is matched by the talking heads editing that characterises the film. Donnersmrck’s principle ( his background looks as if it is in advertising and TV drama) seems to be to keep the picture moving by hard cutting in all of the scenes. The principle is that if you cut fast enough people won’t get bored with the picture (as it’s never in front of their eyes for more than 10 seconds) and secondly they will be distracted from the banality of the dialogue by editing which concentrates attention on emotive reading generated by the action cuts. In LO Donnersmarck never allows the viewer to watch the interaction in “ two shots” : if he has two ro three people in dialogue, he immediatelycuts in to shot – reaction – shot , so forcing the viewer to take his shots through the sequences.
I think that the reason for the dead cinematography and the manic forced cutting is that Donnersmarck has nothing to say. Donnersmarck thinks he is telling a story. In fact what is doing is force feeding us a plot line. Story deepens and enhances character; plot diminishes and cheapens the players. Story has organic ties to the material with which it engages in a complex circuitry. Plot is simply a mechanical driver whose object is deliver the players from starting point to preordained finishing point. In some ways it’s an ends and means distinction. Plot is anally fixated on its ending. So, the means plot utilises: character, setting, dynamics and tensions all completely subserve the delivery of the final sequence. LO is all plot and no substance. Donnersmarck thinks that he is telling us a story with a moral: that good men and goodness will survive evil systems. But in terms of the plot driven nature of LO the film is just machine whose function is to manipulate an outcome. And the idea of the moral which rests upon the notion of choices cannot sit within a mechanical form. The moral choice in this situation doesn’t exist; what happens in plot driven forms is the characters instead of acting out scripts in which they have to make choices, get scripts that ask them to adopt particular roles. And the roles of course conform to cliché. So we have: the whore addict, the Madonna, the Innocent the Warrior and the Angel.
LO is an Angel story – specifically a guardian angel story. It is a film with no sense of place, with no atmospheric presence. It is simply an angelic variation on a love story with a vague slightly menacing corporate setting that is as much American paranoiac as East German Stasi. Wiesler a senior Stasi agent organises the total surveillance of the regime pet intellectual, Dreyman. But his fascination for Dreyman and his girlfriend leads him to take on the role of their protector rather than their persecutor. Donnersmarck’s plot wants to guide us into thinking of Wiesler as a good man because he carries out his actions altruistically without thought of reward for himself expecting no recognition and willingly taking on risk. But the plot doesn’t allow the audience any sense of Wiesler’s choices or his sense of moral dilemma. From his surveillance station above Dreyman’s flat which he shares with his girl Christa, watching the couple eat talk screw sleep work he adopts the role of their guardian angel. There is no message here just an advertising strap line – someone is watching over us. This benignly bent surveillance becomes the device on which LO hangs the mechanism of the plot, which has little tension, and few twists of the screw that cause the characters any real issues of moral choice. Christa for instance who as well as being Dreyman’s girl, is also fucking a party big shot, finally betrays him. But betraying Dreyman is not her moral choice proper. It is a decision that is determined by her role: she is a drug addict. When the state (because she throws over the big shot) threatens to choke her dope, she sings, so that the plot can then grind on to its fake twee moral ending. But of course Christa’s “betrayal” is a cop out. Never trust a junkie, because what’s a junkie going to do to get her fix – anything.
In LO, Donnersmarck attempts to raise issues about the DDR, such a suicide, the widespread networks of informants and intensive surveillance of intellectuals. But these issues can’t really sit in a movie characterised by actors playing roles. In the same way as some Hollywood movies adopt or try to promote issues, the feeling is that like baubles on a Christmas tree the issues are there to attract attention to the film rather than to generate more real responses.
It might be that cultures require a generation at least before they are able to look back attentively at the past. But at this point Germany is looking to Hollywood rather than to its own traditions for understanding what it has experienced.