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Culture Monster and the Power of Art

May 05, 2021

I've been thrilled with the response to Episode 9 and Tim Shantz and there are lots more interesting conversations to be had on future episodes. Here is some bonus CULTURE MONSTER content in the form of an appreciation of one of my favourite recent films, one that delves into the power of art in our lives.

Who knows, one day at a play or concert, your life could be changed forever.

There is a saying Roger Ebert used to have, and its one of two laws of criticism I try to have: A film is not about what it is about, it is about HOW it is about it.

Even so, often great films have great subjects married to great artistry and that is the case here. Donnersmarck’s film isn’t just a portrait of the truly Orwellian surveillance state of East Germany, although it is a remarkable one. The level of detail here is astounding. (Check out the DVD extras: you can see the exterior of the Stasi building is the actual Stasi building, and people really do go there to look up the files about themselves. The concrete apartment blocks, the cars, the recording equipment, the slight menace of our protagonists black jacket, all perfectly done. 

We even get a variety of tantalizing glimpses of how the security police actually did their work. Donnersmarck (who like Mühe, grew up in the GDR) elegantly puts these details in without getting in the way of the overall plot. 

An example of this is the film’s opening, before the title. After a couple of cogent blocks of text to setup the situation, we jump right into an interrogation —no wait— a classroom discussion of a successful interrogation. Mühe is every inch the calm powerful secret police agent: Colonel Landa without the showiness or sneer. 

He even takes careful note of the one student who objects to the treatment of prisoners. After the class is over, Wiesler’s friend and superior appears. We get just a hint that he might be interested in things other than promotion of the great socialist state. He wishes to make a good impression on the government minister, so he invites Wiesler to the theatre. The scene couldn’t be simpler; yet all the germs of major themes of this story are all there, ready for action.

Who knows what may happen at the theatre? Your life might be changed forever!

“Did you forget, bosses sit over there.”

“Socialism must begin somewhere.”

it soon becomes clear that our man HGW is a true believer, and he might be the only one. He fits perfectly into the role assigned to him, going home to his ugly concrete apartment, with its basic furniture and uninteresting food. This is a world of greys and browns; where there is no companionship, but occasional businesslike sex from an official Stasi prostitute. 

He is contrasted with the target of investigation, noted playwright Georg Dreyman. Dreyman is everything Wiesler is not. He gives off a casual vibe, even showing up to a premiere without a tie. He is happily connected with the earthiness of sexual contact, inspired on the page and in the bedroom by his muse Christa-Maria. These men are opposites in every way, but as the film progresses we begin to see that both are adherents to socialism, and both don’t wish to rock the boat. The mechanics of the plot centre on how both men respond to a stressful invitation to turn away from the system.

“Writers are the engineers of the soul”

It says something important about The Lives of Others that the sexiness of Christa-Maria is remarked upon by everyone but it isn’t the key element that turns everything around. It is honest belief in the power of art that changes everything, and perhaps this is part of the reason I respond to this movie so much. The key scene in this respect is after Dreyman’s mentor dies, and he finds the gift he left from his 40th birthday party. He requested no books (his apartment is chock full of them) but this is a different kind of book, a musical score, “Sonata for a Good man.” His rusty fingers play the piece, while our Stasi man listens to every note, transfixed. He then tells Christa an old legend about Lenin. He supposedly said that he couldn’t listen to Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata because if he did, he would be unable to finish the revolution. The music by Gabriel Yared is intriguing and powerful, but it is a relatively short scene.

Donnersmarck doesn’t overly underline anything in this film, he relies on the audience’s attention. The movie is quite low-key in many ways. Even in the interrogation scenes, people mostly speak in low tones, and often without musical backdrop. 

The careful viewer is rewarded with many subtle joys. For instance, he shows us what happens to the low-level Stasi employee that tells the rude joke near the beginning. (The industrial steam letter openers are also quite something.) Even the exterior shot of the book store includes a witty joke. 

The Lives of Others is old-fashioned in all the best ways. We have a villain and protagonists to root for, with quasi romantic-melodrama subplot in the middle. It has a Hitchcockian love of implicating the audience in the experience of watching others who don’t wish to be seen. When Wiesler watches Dreyman, we watch him. In the theatre scene, Wiesler can’t resist using the binoculars not just to watch the play, but to gather intel on figures in the audience, it is a professional habit, to be sure, but it is also exactly what we in the audience what to do as well. 

We finally get to a point where everyone is surveilling everyone, and everyone is hiding important aspects of themselves, and everyone is on thin ice. 

Instead of histrionics and crazy music, our director uses the facts of the situation to drive the suspenseful tension. A prime example of this is Weisler’s interrogation of Christa. She has little power in this situation, and we know he is very good at his job. But we also know he is being watched by his superior officer. We also recall Christa and Wiesler met “by chance” in the cafe earlier. Will she give away she recognizes him? Will she give away the location of the typewriter? Is there a difference in accusing her love, and giving away an important detail like that? Wiesler promises her she will be back on stage, can he even deliver on that promise?

“Fuck you, I’m in the West now!”

(btw, every time I watch this movie, I have the urge to tell this joke to everyone, even though it is not funny at all outside of this context!)

A different kind of film would have ended with the downfall of Wiesler— “Twenty years, twenty Years!” but the film has one more trick up its sleeve after the “4 years and 7 months later” text. After the amazing news, again, no showiness; he just walks out. We then see what happens to our protagonists under reunification. Shockingly, their lives are quite similar to what they were before. 

When Dreyman finally learns what we know, we see both the power and the limits of that revelation on him. 

While he is able to write again, he doesn’t make the personal connection we expect. 

The fascinating New York Times review implies the film suggests that people don’t change; even if the world does, but I prefer a more optimistic view. People might have a basic personality, but people can be inspired, and move beyond the usual expectation. 

Dreyman’s secret message for Wiesler is certainly in a language the reticent civil servant understands. 

What will happen when he sits down on his modest sofa to read the book? Perhaps the power of art will strike again?

The Lives of Others exceptionally dramatizes the moral quandaries of people dealing with a bizarre but seemingly all-powerful and terrible force. Even when there is seemingly no free will, the burden of choice remains. When the gun is metaphorically against your head at all times, is any ethical decision possible? Even more, for me it is a rare film which wrestles with the potential for art to effect our lives.

Stay tuned for more episodes of CULTURE MONSTER coming your way soon.

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