Monday, May 14, 2007

The Lives of Others

The latest new york review of books has an article by journalist and author Timothy Garton Ash about the German film The Lives of Others, which won the Oscar for the best foreign film this year. Garton Ash himself had a "file" for himself in the archives of the Stasi, the secret police of the East German government. He writes about the political and historical background of the film in detail.

I liked it a lot too. I thought it was a powerful and moving film, certainly one of the best of the last year, I was happy that it won the Oscar, though I would have been equally happy had it gone to Pan's Labyrinth.

The only problem I had was the sequence in the middle, which is at the centre of the narrative, where the Stasi office Weisler finds himself spiritually transformed when he comes across a piece of Piano Sonata and Brecht's poetry. Now nobody will deny that great works of art have the power to move us and can help us make that leap of faith and get us close to that authentic being essential for any ethical behaviour in difficult circumstances. What we should be sceptic about is to universalize this notion. To confuse aesthetics with ethics is not just naive, sentimental and wrong but also deeply ahistorical. Even the elementary history of art is enough to conclude that the relationship between the two, aesthetics and ethics, is far more complicated. I don't think they are mutually exclusive realms, as perhaps Kierkegaad said, but something we should be suspect of specially now that the dark twentieth century is behind us.

Having said that I don't think the film itself universalizes this notion at all, even though indirectly it does encourage the viewers to do the same with carefully constructed thriller plot. The whole credit should go to the extra-ordinary presence of the actor Ulrich Muhe in the role of the Stasi officer. (Fans of Austrian director Michael Haneke will recognize him from his astonishing turns in director's early films like Funny Games and The Castle.) From the very first scene we realize that the impassive face hides a profoundly tortured soul and when the key sequences come in it doesn't feel manipulative at all.

Another aspect of the film which we should be sceptic about before universalizing is the charge of moral relativism. Claims like, there is no good or bad there is only "gray" or there are no victims or victimizers only "human beings" may sound like advanced ethical propositions, while most often they are just cynical recourse to hide from genuine and difficult thinking. This is the same banality of evil territory, which as I had mentioned before, we should be careful treading. (Do check out some of the comments on this topic on the last post about Hitler.) Also interesting to read is this article about how the film was received in Germany. Overall it is an excellent film. The career of the young director, with the colourful aristrocratic name Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, will definitely be worth following (it is his debut).

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