Monday, February 26, 2007

Film Review--The Lives of Others

Arthur Schopenhauer once wrote that the purpose of all art is to answer the fundamental question, What is life?

“The Lives of Others,” a film on a writer in East Germany in the 1980s and the intricate surveillance of the Stasi (the DDR's CIA, in effect), will shake your outlook on everything from personal experience to US policy in trying to answer Schopenhauer.

We learn from the very beginning that through their system of informants and threats, the Stasi force decisions from DDR citizens, eventually (inevitably) reaching the film's main characters. The strength of the Stasi necessitates speed, which adds constant stress to the characters' decisions, and creates the tension that drives the movie.

The film’s twist comes from the fact that one of the Stasi’s most diligent and committed members is faced with the same kind of high-stakes decision: turn in the other main character, a playwright who smuggles an incendiary article that is published in West Germany, or sacrifice his reputation.

Although all the characters are interrelated, they are often pictured alone, in their own lives, which enhances the central decision-making current that courses through the movie. Separating each character in his/her personal decision(s) also allows us viewers to enter into their positions and ask these same questions of ourselves: insofar as what I do is what I am, how can I make a decision contrary to what I’ve done thus far? How can I do the morally best thing? How does love affect my choice?

Unlike “The Good Shepherd,” this film poses these questions gracefully. The characters are developed, deep, and approachable, they speak in a dialogue that is at once easy to understand and yet far from shallow--much like a good play. The subtitles, usually an obstruction, were hardly an afterthought as the German language was put on full display. Too often this beautiful language is reduced to Nazism's trademark. Through these methods, the movie even goes so far as to answer those questions.

The answers lie in the relations of self to state and self to self and here the movie becomes pertinent for us 21st century Americans. The movie shows that nobody, not even the top Stasi officials, is perfectly clean, so stringently monitoring every phone call is ridiculous. To borrow a Children’s Book title, Everybody Poops. Everybody has secrets.

The film’s main question, then, is whether we ever really have control over our decisions--and thus whether we really have any control over our lives and who we are.

By the end of the movie, the answer is clear: though we might not always be comfortable with our choices, especially those made under duress, so long as we are guided by those invariably truthful benchmarks of life—compassion, modesty, and love, just to name a few—we can survive, even if our decisions strip us of our comforts.