Academic journal article Journal of Film and Video

"You Must Remember This": The Lives of Others and the Cinematic Imagination

Academic journal article Journal of Film and Video

"You Must Remember This": The Lives of Others and the Cinematic Imagination

Article excerpt

The lives of others won most of the top European and international film prizes between 2006 and 2007, including seven Lolas and an Oscar, but it has also been heavily attacked by some critics both for its sympathetic portrait of a Stasi officer and for its misogynistic portrait of a faithless, drug-addicted actress (e.g., Porton; Foundas). The monstrous Gerd Wiesler, critics have argued, is magically transformed into "the Good Man" of Georg Dreyman's novel after his sudden exposure to theater, poetry, and music, and the vulnerable Christa-Maria Sieland (Mar- tina Gedeck) must be sacrificed to the film's central love story, that between Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe) and Dreyman (Sebastian Koch). In my view, much of this negative criticism implicitly acknowledges that Lives is tremendously suc- cessful at authentically recreating the East Ber- lin of the 1980s. The film captures the bleak- ness of the architecture, the cuisine, and the fashion in such unnerving detail that reviews insistently demand that the film deliver docu- mentary accuracy. I too responded to the film's authenticity and found its recreation of the East Berlin I had visited in 1983 uncanny and unset- tling. Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck took pains to film on location in the rare streets that had not been transformed after the fall of the Berlin Wall. He refined the palette of the film to capture the sense of color in the German Demo- cratic Republic (GDR), so that greens stand in for blues and orange-browns replace reds (von Donnersmarck, Interview on DVD). Visually, the film strives for the quality of documentary.

But The Lives of Others is not a documentary. Although he researched his subject thoroughly for four years, von Donnersmarck's understand- ing of character, his interest in relationships, and his belief in the transformative power of art do not come from history, but from an educa- tion in classic Western cinema. We do not fault Casablanca (1942) or Rome, Open City (1945) for being sentimental. We do not blame The Red Shoes (1948) or The Third Man (1949) for being overblown. Instead, we celebrate these films for the courage of their sentimentality and hyperbole. And von Donnersmarck's first film is an homage to his cinematic heritage. The per- formance of Martina Gedeck cannot be divorced from the iconic performances of Ingrid Berg- man, Alida Valli, Anna Magnani, Moira Shearer, and Julie Christie on which hers is based. And an awareness of Wiesler's cinematic anteced- ents complicates any simple reading of him as a "good man."

These antecedents have been largely over- shadowed by the ideological critiques of Lives. Anna Funder, the author of Stasiland, an ex- traordinary book about life in the GDR, fears that Lives is fostering a new form of Ostalgie.

Groups of ex-Stasi are becoming increasingly belligerent. They write articles and books, and conduct lawsuits against people who speak out against them, including against the German publisher of Stasiland. . . . The system demanded such loyalty . . . that most ex-Stasi are still true believers. A story such as Wiesler's plays into their hands as they fight for their reputation. (Funder, "Tyranny of Terror")

Funder admires Lives: "I think the film deserves its public and critical acclaim. It is a superb film, a thing of beauty. But it could not have taken place (and never did) under the GDR dic- tatorship. . . . No Stasi man ever tried to save his victims, because it was impossible. We'd know if one had, because the files are so com- prehensive" ("Tyranny").

Whereas Funder argues that von Donners- marck is taking brutal fact and turning it into "fantasy narrative," I argue exactly the oppo- site. Von Donnersmarck's particular achieve- ment is using his cinematic influences-almost all of which are fantasy narratives-and trans- forming these into a film that many critics have misread as an attempt at documentary real- ity. Yet an intertextual reading that accounts for these fantasy narratives can do much to shatter this misperception. …

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