Wednesday, August 08, 2007

The Lives of Others

We have been taught to experience art in very limited ways:

* Art as skill: "I could tha-at."

* Art at commodity: "I wish I was an artist."

* Art as a statement: "Fuck the po-lice."

* Art as brussel sprouts: "You have to go the ballet, son, for personal enrichment."

Art is not brussel sprouts, people. It is also not just how it looks, how it was made, how much it costs, or even what it says. It is also not just how you feel or what you think while you're looking at it.

The Lives of Others, for example, is a great film. The camera work and editing is amazing, the script is amazing, the acting is completely incredible. And yet that's just the surface. Underneath all that physical beauty, the film is like a celluloid version of Mother Theresa or something.

************Spoiler alert!*************

The movie doesn't even have a particularly happy ending and yet somehow you walk out the theater feeling as if your life has been saved. There's not a single ray of sunshine in the whole film and yet by the end of it, you feel as if you've been carried up to heaven by a host of angels.

How the hell did they do that?

The landscape and interiors perfectly represent the American nightmare of Socialism, as does the lead character Gerd Weisler, an interrogation and surveillance expert for the East German secret police, who is the epitome of grim-faced dedication to the government's cause.

Assigned to monitor a writer named Georg Dreyman, Weisler and his team managed to bug his flat in a twenty-minute, precision operation and set up a monitoring station in the apartment building's attic in time for Dreyman's 40th birthday party with the expectation that a number of subversive artists will be in attendance.

Weisler's a little freaky, honestly. With his carefully pressed and zipped grey jacket and straight-backed, squared shouldered gate, he resembles nothing so much as a well-designed robot. And if he's a scary Socialist automaton, his self-serving, power hungry superiors are much worse. He might be a deluded true believer, but they're just abusing the system to get ahead or get laid. And yet, he's the audience surrogate and, by the end of the film, our salvation - this feeling that we've been transformed by the film - hinges on his actions.

That might be part of what works so well about the film. The director sets you up to believe that the main character is soulless but then he peels back a few layers of skin to hint at what he's really made of.

When Weisler finally sits down in front of his recording equipment and puts on his headphones, it's as if a new movie has begun. This other story is that of a man, Dreyman, dedicated to his art, his friends, and his lover. Deeply moved by the plight of his colleagues who have been blacklisted for speaking out against the government, Dreyman speaks about it to one of Weisler's supervisors despite the risk that addressing it openly entails. In fact, when he uses the word "blacklist," he is reminded that the East German goverment does no such thing and that suggesting it is "enough to get [him] arrested." Despite these great inducements, Dreyman has nothing negative to say about the government when Weisler's assignment commences.

We watch as Weisler listens. We become absorbed by the rich and passionate lives of his subjects, lives in which love and art move them to do extraordinary things. In stark contrast, the government has designed a life for people like Weisler in which every physical need is met and everything to meet those needs has been recorded in detail and is delivered or withheld according to careful calculations. We also see how his colleagues and superiors use the party name and their own positions to further their self interest, while Weisler himself lives by the Socialist rule book in a sterile environment organized to support his body but not his soul.

Dreyman's life is as rich as Weisler's is empty. So it is not that suprising that, alongside Weisler, we all fall in love with the lives lead by the characters in Dreyman's parts of the movie. And in the end, by watching Dreyman, Weisler, possibly for the first time in his life, experiences art. It is not something he looks at, quantifies, analyzes, or stuffs down his gullet because it is good for him. He actually lives it. He becomes a reader, an author, a muse. The art created by his subjects literally binds him to them and the love and beauty and even the suffering it manifests infuses his life with something a thousand times more worthy than any base need or philosophical posturing around which the Socialist supporting characters organize their lives.

Through Weisler and Dreyman, The Lives of Others deftly illustrates that art is meant to transform us, to add depth and breadth and breath to our lives, to help us see not just the piece in front of us but the whole world as something much more grand and interconnected than the scientific, political, aesthetic, and nutrional components necessary to support it.