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From the Vault: The Lives of Others

September 12, 2010

At the 2007 Oscars, much was being made of “the three amigos”, aka film directors Guillermo del Toro, Alfonso Cuarón, and Alejandro González Iñárritu who all had successful films that year that were nominated.  I had loved both Children of Men and Pan’s Labyrinth that year, so I was particularly bummed when the former lost for cinematography (that scene in the car is seamless and amazing!) and the latter lost in the best foreign film category to the German film, The Lives of Others.

don't mind me, just examining where on your back I'll stab you later!

So I went into this film with a chip on my shoulder, but I’m still relatively forgiving and open to having my heart changed when it comes to movies, plus a lot of people whose opinion I respect dug this movie.  I gave it a chance, but in the end, I was more mad than when I began.

The premise is that a Stasi agent is monitoring a writer and his actress girlfriend and involves himself, eventually sabotaging his bosses as they try to catch the writer producing radical political essays he’s smuggling out.  Now, at first I was hooked — well-acted, well-directed, a compelling story even if it was, once again, a movie about fascism and nazis and the oppression of people (i.e. a holocaust movie that shows a slightly different less told side).  But there is one critical aspect missing (well, some critics say historically there are lots of aspects missing, but I’m no Slavoj Zizek):  character development.  Without this, there are huge gaping plot holes that made no sense to me as a viewer.

First off, I didn’t feel like they laid the groundwork for why the main character got so involved in these people’s lives and put his lifelong career at risk. I mean, I have inklings, perhaps he’d never been exposed to art or literature or the passion of beliefs, and so he’s intrigued by feeling things by it for the first time, but the jump seemed a little fast for someone who was a supposed expert in the field of espionage.  I know this film is ‘subtle’ but sometime I find that to be code for ‘fill in the plot yourself, we can’t be bothered’, and in this case, I really was waiting for some information that never came, so I never full invested in him.

Secondly, what was the girlfriend’s illegal medication? What was her condition? They never explained it, and that feels problematic, because was it something serious and debilitating which would add to her fears of being captured/tortured?  Was it supposedly a ‘hysteria’?  Was it an addiction? It was critical information that never got fully explained, just pulled out randomly to advance random plot points, a convenient excuse as to why she had a sexual relationship with the Minister.

In a critical scene, the Minister guy orders the Stasi to arrest her and question her and to never let her on stage again, but then seconds later he’s like, oh, be an informant and I’ll let you perform again. Ok, I realize now that he was probably lying to get her to turn over information. Nevermind on that point. Although, why did he give her medicine then as a perk, if he was going to just turn around and go back on his word?  But, more importantly, why the hell did she turn over SO quickly with no hesitations? Because her career is so important to her that she will betray her lover? Wtf? Especially given she KNEW when she stopped sleeping with the Minister because her boyfriend asked her too, there was a risk of arrest and not acting again. This woman was trading sex for safety, and it was fcking her up, but she could do it, could find that hard place to make it happen, and yet, she caved in a second when confronted by the Stasi and showed zero loyalty with no payoff? It emotionally made no sense to me, I felt like they just made her ‘weak’ because she was a woman, that was the only explanation. Well, that and they needed a plot device to get to an arrest scene.  Then instead of even making it right, instead of the girlfriend warning the writer of the Stasi showing up to arrest him, they have the agent — the main character, the ‘hero’ — save him instead. Because she’s too weak (she’s a woman!). When her lover realizes the betrayal, the only way to redeem herself is to run outside, jump in front of a car and commit suicide. Know why? Cause she’s weak. (She’s a woman!) And trading sex for safety doesn’t count and if she was strong she’d stand up for principles, besides, her life, her freedom and her passion, it’s not a real commitment like writing an essay.

Ok, I’m being snarky, and its just because I like the idea behind the movie, about making art as a political act, of being political while making art, how to resist oppression while surviving, but it got ruined by creating a hierarchy of what is REAL art, what is strength and what is morally acceptable in extreme situations. And of course, the authority of those things belong only to men. We only have one woman in the whole movie and then we kill her.

And then we give an Academy Award to the director.   Thank you and good night!

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. September 13, 2010 9:31 am

    Ok, I’m being snarky, and its just because I like the idea behind the movie, about making art as a political act, of being political while making art, how to resist oppression while surviving, but it got ruined by creating a hierarchy of what is REAL art, what is strength and what is morally acceptable in extreme situations. And of course, the authority of those things belong only to men. We only have one woman in the whole movie and then we kill her.

    You’ve perfectly encapsulated why this film did not work for me. I too liked the ‘idea’ of the movie, but found the execute of that idea painfully lacking.

  2. September 13, 2010 10:38 am

    Sometimes I watch movies and can’t believe how misogynistic they are and no one notices or mentions it anywhere in any reviews. I start to feel like I’m paranoid or the dreaded “overly sensitive”, but c’mon, this movie seems so obvious: one woman in the whole two hours, she has a mysterious undisclosed drug addiction that is judged, she has sex with the baddest of bad guys, and then she kills herself at the end because she betrayed her boyfriend (for no discernible reason). If this was flipped, everyone would call it a man-hating lesbionic feminist manifesto! But at least it would be subverting the power paradigm and showing something different for change.

  3. September 15, 2010 10:48 am

    You would think that in a film titled “The Lives of Others,” we would get some decent looks into the hearts and motivations of the characters… I simply don’t understand how writers aren’t getting the “character” concept here. If the characters are two dimensional, or do things that make no logical sense from the P.O.V. of their own situations and motivations, people tune out, and no amount of beautiful backgrounds or if it’s a popcorn movie, special fx are going to make up for that.

    Ok, besides characters, having a statement to make about the human condition might be nice too.

  4. September 15, 2010 11:32 am

    @Penpusher, then there’s that! HAHAH. Marginal truth in advertising.

  5. Nan Little permalink
    September 24, 2010 9:09 am

    Real quick–this movie doesn’t have anything to do with Nazis or the holocaust. When WWII ended, Germany was split into East and West. East Germany and East Berlin was went to the Soviet Union and became a socialist state. The Stasi were the intelligence agency for the ruling Socialist Unity Party.

  6. September 24, 2010 9:16 am

    Thanks for the feedback, Nan. I’m confused by your comment. Are you clarifying the term for those unfamiliar with it?

  7. Nan Little permalink
    September 24, 2010 9:20 am

    I’m clarifying. In the post you said that this movie was about Nazis and the holocaust, but it isn’t. Not trying to be snarky. Just thought I’d share. Otherwise, I enjoyed your criticism (although I loved this movie). The Stasi were socialist party intelligence, not Nazi intelligence.

  8. September 24, 2010 9:27 am

    Actually, the post was written by Raymond! Thanks for the feedback and welcome! No worries at all! 🙂

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