A Tale of Two Films

March 7, 2010

The Lives of Others is the kind of film that messes with you when you see it. The movie won an Academy Award a few years back, and I remember hearing that it was very good. I didn’t get a chance to see it before the ceremony and, if I’m honest, held a bit of a grudge against it, because it beat out one of my favorite films, Pan’s Labyrinth, for the gong that year. Still, it was widely acclaimed, so it was with interest that I settled in to watch after it came on after the Ireland-Brazil match on Wednesday.

I really should have prepared myself more.

I have never felt more emotionally exposed than during the hours I spent watching this movie. Set in East Germany in the 80s, this is a film with two protagonists; one, an idealistic member of the literati, penning a damaging manifesto against the Communist government and struggling to keep his credibility, the other, the Stasi agent assigned to spy on him.

I should warn now that I will shamelessly spoil this film’s plot.

Georg Dryman is a playwright struggling with the censorship of the East German regime, finally driven to outright rebellion against the system by the suicide death of his mentor, a director who’d been blacklisted by the authorities. He writes an exposé of the alarming suicide rate in the country and the fact that the government no longer publishes the numbers, connecting this epidemic to a systemic decline in the lives of East Germans. Obviously this is an explosive polemic, and he is in extreme danger without really knowing it.

Gerd Weisler is the Stasi captain assigned to observe everything about Dryman’s life, but not for his radicalism. Instead, Dryman is being watched because of his girlfriend, an actor, Christa-Maria, who a high ranking party member has taken an interest in. The very reason for the surveillance is the first chink in Weisler’s armor. He’s a true believer in the socialist doctrine he was brought up with, and the fact that it’s being used to such vindictive ends starts him down a slow road of rebellion.

The film is remarkably restrained, never telegraphing itself, and it is all the more powerful for it. The viewer simultaneously fears for the safety of Dryman as he composes his piece unknowing of the danger he is in, and thrills to the moral awakening of Weisler. Really, awakening isn’t the best word to use for the process. Weisler is a highly moral man, convinced of the good that his service provides to the state, but as he sees the way those in charge of the government manipulate his work he begins to fight back. First falsifying the transcripts of his eavesdropping, and finally escalating to physical (anonymous) intervention to keep Dryman safe.

For his actions Weisler is condemned, without proof, to a life of drudgery, opening people’s mail. Even after the wall falls he leads a completely unremarkable life, and the viewer feels, despite a bit of vindication he is given after Dryman acknowledges the work he did, the Weisler is at peace with his actions. I cannot recommend this film enough, and I plan on getting my own copy of it before too long. It is absolutely masterful in its control and story telling; I have not been as emotionally invested in a film as I was in this for ages.

The Last Station left me feeling the exact opposite. After about twenty minutes I was completely disinterested in the lives and futures of the characters, despite the story being about the final days of Leo Tolstoy, and despite having Christopher Plummer, Helen Mirren, Paul Giamatti, and James McAvoy playing the lead roles. Maybe it was the accents; no one even bothered to mimic a Russian accent. This normally wouldn’t bother me (I don’t think), but served to totally distract me from the story being told. In truth, I might like to see this story done by Russian actors, in Russian. As is, it just feels slight, which is a shame because it raises a few interesting ideas.

Tolstoy, played by Plummer, is actually a relatively minor actor in this whole story. In all actuality it is a power struggle between Vladimir Chertkov (Giamatti) and the Countess Tolstaya (Mirren) over the rights to Tolstoy’s literary royalties and the future of the Tolstoyan movement. Caught in the middle is an idealistic (fictional, from what I can tell) secretary, Valentin Bulgakov (McAvoy), who is asked by both the Countess and Chertkov to keep a diary detailing all the events in the house.

As I said the film does have some interesting ideas, which could have been more powerful in the hands of a better director. Bulgakov’s idealism is tempered by the dogmatism that Chertkov is importing into the Tolstoyan movement, and has to seriously consider the idea that to be true to the principles Tolstoy advocates he may have to betray the movement. I’ve discussed this in other places on my blog, and think this question is fascinating; it’s a pity it is dealt with so tangentially in favor of the study of the Tolstoy’s marriage, which really is much less interesting and incredibly melodramatic. The Countess’ fears are real and legitimate, but dealt with in such an over the top fashion as to make them ridiculous.

The other interesting idea the film moots centers (again) around Chertkov’s control of the Tolstoyan movement. He imports a puritanical fanaticism to the movement, but it isn’t really explored except by vague accusations and a proxy who runs a Tolstoyan commune who is made out to be similar to Chertkov. Towards the end of the film, Bulgakov accuses Chertkov of making Tolstoyanism look more like Chertkov than Tolstoy. The idea that a person may make an idol of their faith in their own image is a fascinating one to me. It isn’t a particularly original thing to suggest that we can end up making our faith look like ourselves, but it is nonetheless fertile ground for psychological exploration that is squandered in this case.

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