Before the Fall, Another World: Germany’s Others for Oscar?

020507 article sarris Before the Fall, Another World:  Germany’s Others for Oscar?Florian Henkel von Donnersmarck’s The Lives of Others, from his own screenplay, has been chosen as Germany’s entry for this year’s Foreign-Language Film Academy Award. It is one of the most amazing films I have ever seen on the subject of the state’s control over the lives of individuals, both through modern instruments of surveillance and an ingenious ability to recruit and persuade even family members to spy on each other.

The film’s target is East Germany’s secret police, the Stasi, which held sway over the populace from 1950 to 1989, when the Berlin Wall came tumbling down, signaling the end of the Cold War. But what makes The Lives of Others especially compelling as dramatic narrative is its remarkably stirring portrayal by the distinguished East German actor, Ulrich Mühe, as Capt. Gerd Wiesler, a fanatically and almost comically committed Stasi surveillance officer who experiences a change of heart that leads him to sabotage his own investigation of the theatrical people he has come to pity and admire.

Mr. Donnersmarck, the 33-year-old writer-director, recalled the genesis of his project as follows: “Over the years, there were two things that led me to make the film. First were many childhood memories of my visits to East Berlin and the GDR (the German Democratic Republic). As a boy of eight, nine or ten, I found it interesting and exciting to feel the fear of adults. My parents were afraid when they crossed the border: they were both born in the East and thus were more closely controlled by the police. And our friends from East Germany were afraid when other people saw that they were speaking with us, Germans from the West. Without these early experiences I would have had trouble finding the right approach.

“The idea for the film came to me as an image that just suddenly popped into my head: the close-medium shot of a man sitting in a bleak room, wearing headphones and listening to beautiful music even though he did not want to hear it. This man pursued me in my dreams and evolved over the years into Captain Gerd Wiesler.”

The action of the film begins in 1984, seven years before the fall of the East German regime, in an interrogation room where Captain Wiesler is browbeating an escape facilitator into naming his accomplice. Later, he is shown lecturing a class of aspiring Stasi students on his interrogation methods, which some of his pupils find cruel and inhuman. Wiesler insists that these extreme measures are necessary to uncover treasonous conspiracies against the state. His parting piece of advice to the class is to always remember to collect a piece of the suspect’s clothing and store it away in a jar, in case the police dogs need to sniff it later.

At this point, the film begins taking on the aspects of satire or farce. Mr. Mühe’s unchangingly severe expression as Wiesler seems disciplined enough to last for an eternity.

The captain is invited by his superior, Lt. Col. Anton Grubitz (Ulrich Tukur), to the opening night of a play by a writer named Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch), starring the playwright’s girlfriend, Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck). During the intermission, Grubitz is summoned by a powerful government minister, Bruno Hempf (Thomas Thieme), and instructed to begin an investigation of the theatrical couple—not because of any political activities, but rather because the horny Hempf is determined to make Christa-Maria his bedmate by using the investigation as a way to force the girl to comply with his wishes.

Grubitz entrusts the investigation to Wiesler, who promises to supervise it personally. While Dreyman is absent from his apartment, a team of Wiesler’s agents wires every room for maximum surveillance, to the point of tearing up the wallpaper and replacing it after all the wires have been installed.

As the glittering lights of the East Berlin theatrical world swarm into Dreyman’s apartment, Wiesler with his earphones listens to all their gossip—much of it seditious—and types up the gist of these conversations, even the most intimate ones between Dreyman and Christa-Maria. Meanwhile, Hempf presses his advantage, trying to seduce a struggling Christa-Maria in the back of his limousine. We come to see that Dreyman tends to live in a fool’s paradise, assuming that his great theatrical talent makes him immune to the machinations of the Stasi. Christa-Maria is more realistic about the situation, and she is willing to capitulate to Hempf rather than jeopardize Dreyman’s career and her own. But when Albert Jerska (Volkmar Kleinert), Dreyman’s favorite director, commits suicide after having been blacklisted for a long time, Dreyman at last becomes sufficiently aroused politically to write an article to be smuggled out and printed in West Berlin’s Der Spiegel, about East Germany’s high suicide rate and the government’s censorship of those statistics. Given all the surveillance of his apartment, this action would normally have ended in a long prison term for Dreyman. But at this precise moment, Wiesler ­becomes disillusioned with the regime and begins to misrepresent the results of the surveillance to his superiors. He even approaches Maria in a bar before her scheduled rendezvous with Hempf and—presenting himself as a devoted member of her huge audience—persuades her that she is too great an artist to surrender herself to the Hempfs of this world. What makes this scene electrifying is the way Mr. Mühe can convey Wiesler’s moral transformation entirely from within his unchanging exterior.

In the end, only Dreyman escapes unscathed from the melodramatic escalation and acceleration of events set into motion by Hempf’s revenge-seeking, and Grubitz’s belated suspicions about Wieland’s lack of progress in his ­investigation. Mr. Donnersmarck may have piled on one or two too many coincidences in his frenzied series of climaxes, but the world he has created never loses its sociological reality. For one thing, the Stasi, for all its diabolical intrusiveness into the lives of the citizens, was never a particularly bloodthirsty organization like Hitler’s Gestapo or Stalin’s OGPU. Its vampirish thirst for personal information, however, is indicated by the mountainous heaps of files that were found in Stasi headquarters when the organization was dissolved. The film was actually shot on the premises where this data was compiled, and Dreyman is shown consulting these files in the film’s epilogue, which is set in 1991 and finally settles all accounts and reveals all secrets after a revival of his play in the unified East and West Berlin.

The Lives of Others is a cautionary tale for all societies, not least our own, with its ominous mantras of secrecy for the sake of a conceivably endless war on terror. Though Mr. Donnersmarck hasn’t editorialized excessively on the subject of state snooping, his narrative is damning enough in itself. Indeed, his film serves as a rebuke to the still-widespread nostalgia, in ­Germany and elsewhere, for the perceived social and economic idealism of the German Democratic Republic, despite its shameful suppression of all civil liberties.

This is not to say that the current globalization of capitalism is producing heaven on earth for all the world’s inhabitants. But whatever system we live by or under, the same problems arise. In the writer-director’s own words: “In the film, each character asks questions that we confront every day: how do we deal with power and ideology? Do we follow our principles or our feelings? More than anything else, The Lives of Others is a human drama about the ability of human beings to do the right thing, no matter how far they have gone down the wrong path.”

This the film does admirably, with a splendid ensemble cast and a marvelous sense of proportion.

The Gray Areas

Claude Chabrol’s Comedy of Power (L’Ivresse du Pouvoir), from a screenplay by Odile Barski and Mr. Chabrol (in French with English subtitles), is the seventh film on which Mr. Chabrol and actress Isabelle Huppert have worked together. The collaboration began in 1978 with Violette Nozière, followed by Story of Women (1988), Madame Bovary (1991), La Cérémonie (1995), The Swindle (1997) and Merci Pour le Chocolat. Mr. Chab­rol’s latest excursion with Ms. Huppert turns out to be a very subtly ironic “comedy” at the very thin line separating the uses and misuses of power on both sides of the law. Ms. Huppert’s character, a Parisian judge named Jeanne Charmant Killman, is based on the real-life examining magistrate Eva Joly, whose seven-year investigation into charges of fraud and bribery at the French oil company Elf Aqui­taine launched the biggest and most scandalously publicized fraud investigation in Europe since World War II.

Though much of the film is centered on Jeanne’s professional activities as an examining magistrate, which are much like those of the much threatened and maligned Ms. Joly, the narrative flows freely between the storms of her public life and those in her private life.

The film begins curiously with the last day of freedom enjoyed by C.E.O. Michael Humeau (François Berléand) as he prepares to leave on a brief vacation after arranging tickets for his mother to attend the French Open in Roland Garros Stadium in Paris. As his limousine door is held open by the company driver, Humeau is intercepted and whisked to jail by two detectives, who drive him away in another car. In this way, Humeau is strangely humanized before he is charged by Jeanne the next morning with corruption and embezzlement as the C.E.O. of a gigantic state-supported company. It turns out that Jeanne has intentionally used her power to have the allergy-afflicted past-middle-aged Humeau spend a night in jail before she confronts him with her charges. Jeanne produces one document after another attesting to Humeau’s abuse of his fiduciary authority with the company’s funds for his mistress and himself to enjoy all the luxuries in vacation spots across Europe. As Jeanne continues her judicial torture of Humeau, her own marriage to Philippe (Robin Renucci), a moody physician, begins to disintegrate. Philippe resents Jeanne’s workaholic ways as a magistrate. Her home life is made even more difficult for Philippe because of her greater conversational affinity with her favorite nephew, Felix (Thomas Chabrol), who has been staying in their apartment since the break-up of his marriage. Felix is a happy-go-lucky type, who believes in living each moment to the full, unlike his more work-obsessed hosts.

As Jeanne sweeps more big corporate fish into her net, the male powers that be, with their big cigars and smug, sexist attitudes to women, discuss ways to retaliate against this “female Robespierre.” Their first very crude attempt at intimidation consists of tampering with the brakes on her car. In the ensuing car crash, Jeanne is only slightly injured—after which, she gets two permanent bodyguards. They then decide to smother her with kindness by “promoting” her to a larger office and lightening her workload with a female assistant magistrate, Erika (Maryline Canto). The idea is that two women of the same rank are bound to hate and betray each other if they work together. Here again, the male establishment is confounded when Jeanne and Erika become warm and mutually trusting friends.

If Jeanne has an Achilles heel, it’s the charming Sibaud (Patrick Bruel), who briefly seduced her before she realized that she was being ­exploited. When Jeanne drags in Sibaud for questioning of his own corrupt practices, the wise men with the cigars feel that only an enforced vacation for Jeanne would get her off their backs. At this very perilous juncture in her professional life, Jeanne’s husband jumps out a window in an apparent suicide attempt. Yet, when police discover that he was in possession of a loaded pistol, which the film makes it a point to show us earlier, they begin to inquire why Philippe did not use it to end his life instead. Jeanne ­realizes that in his pathetic way, Philippe was simply trying to get her attention.

At the same hospital in which Philippe is slowly recovering from his injuries, Jeanne encounters Humeau chained to a wheelchair. Their exchanged glances suggest that these two onetime-bitter antagonists now share mutual feelings of sympathy toward the other. Jeanne finally realizes that the powerful forces arrayed against her will never surrender their privileged status, no matter how hard she struggles to bring them to account. The system itself is too corrupt, and the biggest fish will always be beyond her reach. Her final words in the film are, aptly, “The hell with them.” She turns her cases over to Erika, who promises to prosecute them. Jeanne believes in her, and there is a glimmer of recognition on Jeanne’s part that she may also have been corrupted by possessing too much power over others.

One cannot imagine a similarly sophisticated fictional treatment of the Enron case from the point of view of both the accusers and the accused; in Hollywood movies, there is only right and wrong. Mr. Chabrol’s Comedy of Power is much wiser than that, and his audience can derive considerable pleasure from the exquisite ironies that the film generates.

More Morricone!

Film composer Ennio Morricone is the driving force of a three-week, 26-movie retrospective at Film Forum, from Feb. 2 through Feb.22. I would recommend every film on the list, both for Mr. Morricone’s music and the overall quality of the individual entries, which is strikingly high. My own personal favorite is Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) on Sunday, Feb. 4. The series begins with Elio Petri’s somewhat underrated Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion (1970) on Friday and Saturday, Feb. 2 and 3.

Mr. Morricone is also receiving a special award at this year’s Oscars, and he is giving a first-ever U.S. concert at Radio City Music Hall on Feb. 3. The honors, as always, are long overdue.