The Lives of Others – College Critique

Name:  Frank Gould
Class:  Advanced Film Program – Art of Cinematography
Date:  29 April 2011
Assignment:  Review The Lives of Others Movie
Title:  Apples, Oranges, Oscars, and Golden Globes

From the first frames of this movie, the audience is presented with a harsh reality of Soviet East Germany as the smooth camera dollies down a long and empty hallway where the painted walls have a line approximately as high as a human’s neck.  As an officer escorts his prisoner down this hall, it appears as if they are both trying to keep their heads above this artificial paint line, metaphorically above water.

The Lives of Others - Opening

This same theme is repeated in most of the Stasi headquarter scenes showing a highly institutionalized 1960s appearance.  The camera dollies left to right to show a classroom of students being lectured about how to interrogate a suspect into confession; the colors are grays, browns, and greens.

The Lives of Others - Classroom

This is in stark contrast with the artist’s flat that appears warm and inviting.

Later in the story, the lead character sets up his surveillance room above the artist’s apartment and the camera move around him slow and methodically in the scene where he hears a song played on a piano by the resident below.  This scene shows us how moved he is by moving a long way but keeping him center frame with all the high tech surveillance equipment surrounding him in a set that looks like a cave.

The Lives of Others - Electronic Cave

At this same point in the movie, there are many scene where he is standing or looking at things in the artist’s apartment showing a wide shot and all the set decorations that tell the audience about the artists he is watching and recording.  I believe these shots also tell the audience that he is changing and becoming more appreciative of the artists and their lifestyle.

I chose this movie for this class review because it generated a heated discussion between a few students after watching it.  Carlos Escobar and Bobby Arnold were not impressed with this movie where Alex Bright thought it was a great movie.  Alex contended that Carlos didn’t like the movie because he couldn’t relate to it and that those of us alive during the cold war could.  Carlos replied that he wasn’t born when the holocaust occurred but he liked Schindler’s List.  The reason we watched this movie was to learn why this movie won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film over Pan’s Labyrinth.  Bobby said he was not impressed with either movie.  It was at this point our instructor reminded the students that art is like comparing apples and oranges.  Some prefer one over the other. In this case, we watched a fantasy film to compare with a fictional documentary-type movie.

I was impressed with and liked both movies.  Both are basically the same arc through the story where the antagonists try to oppress and control the artistic.  The difference is that the antagonist in Pan’s Labyrinth is obsessed with his future offspring and legacy where in The Lives of Others, the antagonist is obsessed with the female life-partner of a successful East German playwright.  Another significant difference is in the production. Pan’s Labyrinth is a very complicated fantasy world with mythical creatures and worlds beyond reality.  The Lives of Others is a very realistic portrayal of communist controlled East Germany and how its citizens try to enjoy life in an oppressed culture.  The story cleverly unfolds the change in that culture back to freedom when the Berlin wall is torn down. This is the irony because we learn in the beginning that the antagonist believes “people do no change!”

The protagonist in The Lives of Others is a Stasi officer named Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe) who is assigned the task of monitoring playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) and his lover Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck), a successful East German actress.  Wiesler’s commanding officer assigns this task to him in the attempt to break the two lovers apart for the commanding officer, higher in command. In the “rule of three” trilogy, Wiesler turns out to be the third apex between the lovers and the Stasi commanders.  As he listens to the lives of the lovers, Wiesler indeed changes as the plot develops. We learn that Wiesler lives alone in a sterile apartment and exists only to serve the State by spying, interrogating, and torturing citizens into submission and obtain confessions for the State.

The Lives of Others - Enjoying life

During a celebration party for Georg, he confronts the Stasi high commander about his director friend, Albert Jerska (Volkmar Kleinert) who has been blacklisted by the Stasi commanders and will never be able to work again.  Then later during Georg’s birthday party Jerska gives Georg a gift of piano sheet music for Die Sonate vom Guten Menschen (The Sonata of the Good People) which becomes another trilogy in the plot.  Georg attempts to convince the commander to remove Jerska from the blacklist but is too late because Jerska commits suicide and gives Georg a reason to protest the State oppression.  Because the office of statistics stopped recording and reporting suicides (instead, calling them “self-murderers”), Georg decides to write an article for a West German newspaper to expose this travesty.

Act Two is where we watch Wiesler manipulate the lives of the underground protestors and attempts to setup a sting operation.  However, the sonata that Georg plays on the piano changes Wiesler to where he realizes his life is void but the lover’s lives are full of close friends and art.  Wiesler is so moved by the piano piece he hears over his surveillance headphones that a tear runs down his face while Georg plays it on the piano. He then starts lying about the lovers in his reports to the commander and then has to balance the story between the commanders and the lovers.  Eventually, Wiesler loses his job because Christa commits suicide outside her apartment believing she will be incarcerated for treason.

Act Three is where the trilogy resolves as the East is freed, the high commander loses his job, and Georg learns that his apartment had been wired from the beginning.   He then writes a book with the title of the sonata and dedicates it to Wiesler, in appreciation for what he had tried to do to save the lovers. The sonata plays a significant role in the movie and as a trilogy from when Georg first receives it from his friend before committing suicide (#1 – swan song) and when playing it, Wiesler changes his allegiance (#2), and finally at the end when Georg dedicates it to Wiesler (#3).

The Lives of Others - Ending

As for the Oscar win over Pan’s Labyrinth, I believe that the story resonated more with the voters for The Lives of Others in that it is more realistic to human suffering and how art changes the world to be a better place.  Pan’s Labyrinth is definitely an entertaining and beautifully executed story but it lacks in its connection to specific life experiences.  As for Bobby’s opinion of the two, he didn’t like fantasy stories and expected more action in The Lives of Others.  He, obviously, prefers pears.  I also found it interesting that both movies were nominated by the Golden Globe committee for Best Foreign Film but lost to Letters from Iwo Jima, a film directed by Clint Eastwood – ironically not a foreigner.  Regardless, The Lives of Others won an Oscar and had 61 wins & 21 nominations, Pans’ Labyrinth won 3 Oscars and had 68 wins & 58 nominations, and Letters from Iwo Jima won an Oscar and had 16 wins & 15 nominations.

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