Monday, December 18, 2006

Movie Review: "The Lives of Others"

This German film is likely to be one of the finalists for "Best Foreign Language Film". It deserves to be. Is it a great film? No. Does it aspire for greatness? Yes. And because of that it is a great viewing experience...and makes it worth sitting through its two hours of sub-titles.

It poses a moral dilemma --something any film, as a work of art, should do--something humanly complex; a question that is enduring, profoundly true. Greatness does not not pander to your convictions, but makes your examine them. And in so doing, enables you to strengthen them.

"The Lives of Others" is the story of an idealist enmeshed in a corrupt system; the dilemma of an individual maintaining ideals, core beliefs, and loyalty to a cause when that cause is corrupt, and worse, is being corrupted by compatriots and even worse, by leaders. How does one remain loyal to one's family when the heads of one's family are perverting the very moral basis of family life? (The echoes of Iraq, Vietnam--as well as the dilemma of the 'good German soldier' fighting for Nazi Germany in WWII-- resound in this film. It asks the question--and poses possible answers: how does a person hold onto his convictions and beliefs when those convictions and beliefs are being used for limited and personal gain by their leaders? How long and how far can a man look the other way without twisting and breaking his own moral neck?)

The central figure in the film is a member of the East German secret police, the STASI, before the fall of the 'Wall', a State interrogator who believes so valiantly in the rightness of his side, that he is willing to push the limits of physical surveillance and psychological interrogation to destroy those fighting against his and his political family's 'noble' cause; in this case, East Germany and Communism.

Enter the moral dilemma. He is asked by a party boss to use his surveillance and interrogation expertise to further the boss's sexual desires: to indict an innocent, State-obedient 'good man' not because the man is a danger to the State, but solely because he is the boyfriend of some sexually desirable woman: and the boss feels the banishment and imprisonment of the man-as-rival would enhance the boss's sexual life.

Thus, the film's moral dilemma: Can--and should--the central chararacter, as an idealist, use his knowledge and pervert his convictions for cynical ends...and even and especially when his political/career/future is at stake? And if he takes the high road, how does he escape discovery, condemnation and personal destruction.

The film is plotted well; it has wonderful twists and turns. Sometimes it bends a little too 'conveniently', true--there are more than a few obvious plot contrivances--but the characters and the theme (and the acting) are so engrossing that I forgave these shortfalls. The film reaches for a deeper, fuller and more complex understanding of human nature: and, after all...what is a person's--not to mention a whole film's reach for--but to exceed its grasp.


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