Adèle and I went out last night to see Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen). I don't expect to see many better movies this year. It's at once a gripping political thriller, a portrait of life in the former German Democratic Republic under the omnipresent Stasi, and an essay in political evil and individual redemption. In its moral seriousness, it reminded me – negatively - of the number of would-be thrillers I've seen in recent years with contrived and convoluted plot outcomes that were ultimately empty of any purpose other than their own cleverness. This film conveys the nightmarish atmosphere of a society under constant surveillance, the fear, the pressures to compromise, the temptations of betrayal. It also has a marvellous ending that I won't give away, though I will say that film-makers and movie-goers of a postmodern cast of mind might not find it sufficiently obscure or ambivalent for their taste.
The only critical note I would strike is this: the presentation of the main Stasi protagonist (Wiesler) in the opening scenes of the movie is such as to make one doubt the possibility of the moral transformation he subsequently undergoes and which is central to the story.
That is a matter of what comes across as psychologically convincing, however; it has nothing in common with the line of criticism I've found in an article in the May issue of Sight and Sound (not yet online) by Anna Funder, author of Stasiland. Arguing that a figure like Wiesler, who helped the 'suspects' he had been detailed to spy on, could not have existed in the Stasi, Funder writes:
[I]t is this choice - to make a film about the change of heart of a Stasi man - that turns The Lives of Others, for some, into an inappropriate plea for the absolution of the perpetrators.I would dispute that it is possible fair-mindedly to view this movie as a plea for absolution. It shows the change of heart of a single Stasi agent, but does so in the general context of so much cruelty, corruption, venality and individual violation that no one coming out of The Lives of Others can be left in any doubt about the guilt of those who ran the system. Equally, even if a real Wiesler could not have got away with what the fictional one does get away with here, this is a licence that does not deceive as to the more general character of that system. There is evidently a deeper scepticism behind Funder's historical reservation, because she says the following as well:
That people can become better than they are is a seductive fiction.Von Donnersmarck is entitled to think differently on this score and to embody his different thought in his work. But I don't believe he can properly be charged with being soft towards the Stasi.