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Posts Tagged ‘betrayal’

sin-you-sinners1

Bobbi is an over-the-hill but still spirited exotic dancer. Somebody ought to remake this movie with Madonna in the great role of Bobbi. Aided by the power of a Haitian amulet, she holds in thrall a guy named Dave, a born loser she pulled out of the gutter. But Dave can’t keep his hands off Bobbi’s daughter, young Julie, who looks like one of those “draw me” art school ads that used to be in the backs of magazines.drawme

There’s some kind of honky voodoo ceremony, where Julie gets to show her stuff. She and Dave run away together, and there’s some very Freudian cross-cutting between their tryst, and Bobbi’s onstage bump-and-grind. The amulet does its work, and Dave comes crawling back. Desolate Julie wanders out into the night and is stalked by a leering man rolling a cigar around his mouth in the most hideously lascivious way.

This terminally camp film is odd, in that long stretches of it seem as if they were made for a silent film. It’s broadly acted, like a silent. Yet, there is dialogue – sometimes, lots of it. But the sound quality is awful and the continuity is sub-par. On the other hand, there’s human sacrifice in the club’s storeroom, and Julie ends up with the amulet.

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carny

Frankie (Gary Busey) gets made up to do his turn as Bozo. The job description is: sit in a cage and aggravate the male carnival visitors, so they will spend lots of money buying balls to throw at him. If they hit a lever just right, he gets dumped in the water. These rubes just have to show off for their girlfriends. Of course the best way to irritate a redneck is to impugn his manhood. “Don’t be queer,” Bozo sneers. The Bozo persona is truly provoking, with a flat twangy voice and an aura of malice. “You know why she’s shorter than you?” he taunts one guy. “It’s because she shrinks from your touch.”

Actually, Frankie is a pretty nice guy. We see examples of this, for instance at breakfast, when he and his buddy Patch (Robbie Robertson) are both accompanied by their one-night-stands. Frankie is sweet to the girl he picked up and partied with. Patch smokes a joint and ignores his own girl. His motto is, “I like to see ’em come, and I like to see ’em go.”

Patch is the carnival’s fixer. He fixes situations with money, free passes, or violent attack, whatever it takes. I love his look, and felt moved to paint a portrait of Robertson in this role (down the page.) Patch is cool but not cold. When an old-timer gives his farewell speech, the fixer wipes away a furtive tear.

If the marks don’t buy tickets to the Garden of Earthly Delights, the barker accuses them of not having normal sexual appetites. The carnival world is permeated with sex, a bachelor’s paradise where Frankie and Patch have shared girls and swapped girls. Then, into this testosterone-saturated atmosphere comes Donna (Jodie Foster). At she hooks up with Frankie, who treats her with respect and genuine caring. He encourages Donna to believe in her own instincts and powers of observation, which can be a double-edged weapon likely to hurt friends and the self, as much as enemies.

Donna’s cocky attitude gets the two friends attacked by truckers in a restaurant. Patch starts falling apart. He’s already thinking he’s getting to old to be a hired muscle guy, and now this woman is getting him into stupid fights for no reason. And she can’t resist playing him and Frankie off against each other. This is a sad commentary on the tendency of some women to take pride in their ability to set men at each other’s throats. In their eyes, this is a legitimate kind of empowerment. But they’re wrong.

And hey! Men do it too. In fact, riling people up is Frankie’s profession. Sure, he says he does Bozo not for the money, but as a student of human nature. But he’s just a little too good at doing Bozo. He’s earned himself some disturber-of-the-peace karma that’s coming back to bite him in the ass with Donna’s teeth, as it were.

“We’re crossing some state lines here. How old is Donna?” Patch sees Donna as an impediment to his partnership with Frankie, and tries to get rid of her. She claims to be 18, so he can’t ditch her with the underage excuse. You guessed it – before long, it’s Donna and Patch. Part of the problem here is that Frankie sees her as a rare blossom, far too good for life on the midway. But Patch is up for changing her into a carny, and succeeds, by getting her in the girly show. When that doesn’t work out, he finds her a job in a concession booth. Kissing her, he says, “You don’t even feel like a mark any more.”

Frankie has to find Patch for a rumble. When he stumbles in on Donna and Patch making it, he’s almost apologetic. Soon he’s back in the cage as Bozo, “rangin’ up” the yahoos, who don’t need any encouragement, because they’re already wrecking the place. Patch shows up and tells him to cool it, but Bozo is on a suicidal run, carrying on as if only exorcism would settle him down. The yahoos knock over his cage, and Patch extricates him. Then they have a serious fight and Patch says, “You and I are gonna disconnect.”

A bunch of really bad shit happens, and the two friends work together to fix a situation for Donna. They also make up, but then Frankie suggests he might move on. Patch says no, and Donna stays too. Patch decides to take a turn in the Bozo cage. He’s always been too cool for that kind of thing, before. You get the impression that they’ve each made the decision to continue on as a threesome, and that they’re each willing to make whatever adjustments or accommodations are needed, in order to do that.

patch

Interested in the portrait of Robbie Robertson as Patch?
Email Pat Hartman hartman (at) frii.com

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bad-timing

Under the credits, a man and a woman wander through a museum in Vienna, comporting themselves like lovers. We get close-up views of luscious romantic Klimt paintings and then – a Schiele canvas, in which a man desperately holds onto a woman who looks very much like she wants to get away.

He is American research psychologist Alex Linden (Art Garfunkel) and she’s an American too, Milena Flaherty (Theresa Russell), who comes and goes across Austria’s border and has a husband over there in Czechoslovakia. Russell is beyond superb. While directing the movie, Nicholas Roeg fell in love with her, and you can sorta tell from the way the whole thing is a showcase to display her. She deserves it. (They got married, had a couple of kids, and divorced.) Her eyes seem to change color in different scenes – there’s one in particular where they are the palest icy blue, yet seem a minute later to be dark.

The first question you have to ask about Milena is, what does she live on? When she moves, she only takes along one small bag. Yet she has fabulous clothes and an apartment full of stuff. Is she a trust fund baby, or does she hold onto the Czech husband because he’s rich, or what? There’s no indication of her ever doing any kind of work. She can get away with being drunk, having irresponsible, impulsive adventures, and so forth. Her source of income isn’t relevant to the plot, but geez.

Along with his research and teaching, Alex Linden does occasional jobs for the US intelligence services. For instance, a spook hands him two files, and tells him to find out if either of the subjects “sniffs cocaine or plays with little girls or boys.” Linden, who should know better, is a poor security risk. He brings files home. He brings home a file on Milena’s husband, which includes her photo and biographical information.

We learn the story of Milena and Linden in flashbacks. In fact there’s probably more cutting back and forth in time than in any movie ever made. It’s pretty disorienting. So go ahead and watch it twice.

In the present, an ambulance takes the overdosed Milena to the hospital. Inspector Netusil (Harvey Keitel) extracts the story from Linden. Milena had called him up and said “I’ll be dead in a minute, I wanted to say goodbye” and of course he went right over. It was no big deal, she’d overdosed before. Linden paints her as a wild woman who denies herself nothing, a woman to whom something dreadful was bound to happen sooner or later.

But the inspector sees a few discrepancies. Linden says he talked on the phone with Milena long after she would have already been comatose. And his car radio is tuned to a station that doesn’t start broadcasting until midnight. And so on. In other words, Netusil suspects exactly what happened. Far from rushing to Milena’s side and summoning help immediately, Linden waited to make sure she would die, and “ravished” her in the meantime.

We see how it went down. When Linden first arrived, Milena was still semi-coherent. Collapsed on the floor, with almost no motor skills left, she managed to get the telephone. Linden pulled the jack from the wall and replaced it later, after it was too late. Looking around the apartment, Netusil somehow intuits all of this. He even seems to have psychic visions that tell him what happened.

Linden puts Milena on her bed, saying “We don’t need anybody else. Just you and me.” While waiting for her to die, “It’s better this way, believe me, there was no other way.” After pacing around for a while, he cuts her clothes off and rapes her inert body, saying “I love you.”

At the beginning of their affair, Milena had pursued Alex, who hung back at first. We see them in happier times. He reads to her from the poetry of William Blake, the verse

What is it men in women do require?
The lineaments of Gratified Desire.
What is it women do in men require?
The lineaments of Gratified Desire. *

A scene where Milena’s in bed with her husband implies that she isn’t getting sexual satisfaction from him, although that’s not the only reason she goes out in search of adventure. He’s 30 years older, for one thing. Once when Milena goes missing for a week, Linden calls her husband, who is bored, dismissive, and contemptuous of this weak American, who can’t muster the necessary intestinal fortitude to deal with such a woman. The husband tells Linden that a man has to love Milena even more than his own dignity. And, as Linden learns, more than he loves being told the truth. She persists in lying about her marital status, and Linden crosses over to Czechoslovakia and bothers some hostile bureaucrats to try and find out if she’s divorced or what.

Linden wants Milena to move in with him, he wants her to return to the States with him and marry him. We sit in on one of his lectures, where he speaks to the students about how we are all spies. He knows all about this, because he spies on Milena a lot, and suffers terribly from jealousy, while she relates to a lot of different men.

But that’s not all. She does heedless things, like burn his car’s upholstery with a cigarette. She can be an embarrassing drunk. In one horrendous scene she’s invited him over. Her place cleaned up as if by the world’s most dedicated housewife, and she’s wearing some kind of mock-sexy outfit and enough makeup to turn her from a flashy woman into a grotesque clown. She’s changed herself into what he seems to want her to be. He leaves, and from the balcony she hurls bottles into the street, yelling at him so the whole neighborhood is disturbed.

Soon their discourse is reduced to “What?” and “Why?” as brilliantly encapsulated in one scene. He wants to possess Milena, who can’t be possessed. “You don’t own me. I don’t own you,” she says. She enumerates some of her priorities – to get up when she wants to get up, and eat when she wants to eat, and not to be with people she doesn’t like. (These are core values I recognize, and I don’t think a person who holds them is necessarily a monster of selfishness.) They have a terrible argument on the stairs and she declares, “I just want to be allowed to give where I can – what I can – to who I can.” What she most likes to give, and there’s nothing wrong with this, either, are the Lineaments of Gratified Desire.

There’s a lot of cross-cutting to emphasize the twinship of sex and death. From Milena’s orgasm to her convulsions on the emergency room operating table. From the couple having sex, to the doctor spreading her legs and going in with a speculum to look for rape evidence. From Milena’s head hanging over the edge of the bed during sex, to the doctors doing the tracheotomy.

With unflagging persistence, the inspector interrogates Linden. He’s fully tuned in to the atmosphere of claustrophobic obsession and sexual pessimism reminiscent of certain Leonard Cohen lyrics. The intuitive genius detective is the role Harvey Keitel was born for, and this isn’t the first time he’s filled it, or the last. Anyway, he’s just about gotten Linden to confess when Milena’s husband appears at the door. More bad timing. She’s alive, and will recover.

I like how the art references in the film hang together. For instance, we see Milena reading The Sheltering Sky, and later we see her with Linden on vacation in Morocco, which apparently was their last happy time. This is where he made the mistake of talking about marriage, which left her completely unimpressed. As he waits for her to die, he plays a record of Moroccan music instantly recognizable as the Master Musicians of Jajouka. Which is ironic, because this is supposed to be healing music. Maybe that’s why Milena survives the drug-induced coma. You’d think the professor would be smart enough not to play the wrong kind of music to die by.

So Linden gets away with attempted murder, and loses Milena of course. There’s a flash-forward to a future scene, when they’re both back in their own country. She gets out of a cab, he gets into a cab. He had asked her to return to the States with him, as his wife. Instead, their only meeting is accidental and brief, and she looks at him with hatred.

*These lines, incidentally also figure in Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, where the characters initials (like the author’s) are LGD (for Lineaments of Gratified Desire, of course.)

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celebration

This subtitled Danish film is described on the box as a “viciously funny satire.”  Well, okay, but I wouldn’t want anyone to watch it with the expectation of laughing.

It’s kind of in the same genre as The Exterminating Angel, and Savages – where a bunch of high-class people are prevented from leaving a social occasion. It just goes on and on and becomes the dinner party from hell. Same genre too as Jacob’s Ladder, The Business of Fancy Dancing (to name only two that come immediately to mind) – where a scene may or may not be part of the narrative, the “real” story.  It might also be a hallucination of how someone wishes things would be, or how they could have been or would have been, or how they were on some archetypal, mythical level.

It’s also a prime illustration of how European cinema is different.  This thing starts off slow, you get lots and lots of character delineation, but no real clue about what’s going on except it’s some tycoon’s 60th birthday and the whole family is in the process of gathering.  So far it all seems kind of pointless.  An American film would have begun with artistically morphed footage of the dad molesting the twin children, starting off with a bang, right under the credits.  “Put the fire up front” is more of an American concept – it works well, but this slow approach works great too, if you’re willing to invest some attention and patience.

Still, I almost gave up on it – I think what kept me hooked was Michael’s outrageous behavior.  Then after a while, Helene started to captivate me – not what the character did, so much as the actress herself.  Great face.

And it becomes clear that another sibling, Linda, has recently killed herself.  So everybody’s tiptoeing around that, and apprehensive about what this loose cannon Michael is going to do because, knowing him, he is sure to find a way to ruin things.

But as it turns out, quiet, mild, reasonable Christian is the one who drops the bomb.  Standing to give a speech at the birthday dinner, he asks Dad to pick – he has a speech in each hand.  (You gotta wonder what the other speech said.  If the father had chosen that one, were they both the same anyway?)  Christian accuses the father of sexually abusing him and his sister when they were young.

Helene clinches it by reading Linda’s suicide note to the group.

The house staff contributes to the trauma by stealing everybody’s car keys so they all have to stay and witness the trouble.

Most memorable line of dialogue:  Christian says to his father “I’ve never understood why you did it,” and the answer is, “It was all you were good for.”

Michael beats the crap out of father and finishes up by pissing on him.  It’s a relief to finally understand the anger of Michael.  He’s always known something was wrong in the family but could never get anybody to talk about it.  Maybe a little jealousy because he knows the twins were chosen for something he was left out of…..however, even he is not aware of this.

The final scene is a true work of art.  Everybody is gathered around the table for a sunny breakfast. Faces are soft and relaxed.   Helene is not a tortured, aging wild child, just a pretty lady.   Michael is still an obnoxious asshole, but not a truly hostile or violent one.  The father has one of the grandchildren on his knee.

All this is what Christian hallucinates when unconscious, or maybe a kind of group hallucination, shared among the siblings, of what their family life could have been. Here’s the way it should have been.

The father apologizes, and says he understands that none of them is ever going to want to see him again.  He says, “You’ll always be my children – and I have loved you and love you, no matter where in the world you are or what you do.”  Just what everybody wants to hear from his parents.  Now we know for sure this scene is a fantasy.

The father addresses Christian: “You fought a good fight, my boy.” Even in Christian’s own fantasy there is ambiguity. This line from his dad seems to be a compliment, but carries two stings in its tail.  First, it implies that Christian has lost:  “Good game” is, after all, something a winner says to a loser.  Christian lost because, while he may not have had the will to kill his father himself, he knew that giving Michael the information would get the job done.  So Christian is not as righteous as maybe he likes to think.  Also, there’s the sexual double entendre, as in “My butt-boy.”

Michael suggests that the father leave so the rest of them can eat their breakfast. The old man asks his wife if she’s coming. “I’ll stay here,” she says. Two layers: indicates she’s on the side of the rest of the family, united in shunning him.  And, she’s not going to commit suicide or die of grief on his account.  Dad exits through the patio doors where the flood of illumination is coming from – he goes into the light, get it?

Their names, as are appropriate in this genre, are symbolic –
Linda – beautiful.  At least her twisted father found her so, and later her brother
Christian – the one who tries to be forgiving and good. One who has fought the good fight, as even his father finally recognizes, in his fantasy anyway.
Helene – a character who makes her mark on history
Michael – an archangel – didn’t he slay a dragon or a demon something? Is Michael associated with vengeance in church mythology?

We’re not sure if Christian might also have made it with Linda. If he did, it was obviously consensual. Still wrong, but at least not rape or exploitation. Maybe it was just a fantasy – either way, good old straight arrow Christian would feel just as guilty anyway.

Or maybe most of the movie was Christian’s hallucination or fantasy. Maybe he chickened out and never read the accusatory speech at all. Maybe he did read the other speech, and it was different. Maybe the whole thing never happened.

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Acceptance by the criminal element is a type of hipness much sought after by overbred bookworms. Maggie is psychiatrist, an academic type who secretly suspects that she might actually be a dorky uptight geek Her professional pride is at stake here. Ultimately, the revelation of what kind of ride she’s been taken for, has a lot to do with where her character arc comes to rest.

Unfortunately, the way of the world seems to be that bad people always know more about good people, than good people – even career head-readers like Maggie – know about bad people. But wait, that’s too simplistic. More accurately: a thoroughly dishonest person knows more about a more relatively honest one, than vice versa.

So: House of Games (1987, directed by David Mamet)

Maggie’s book about compulsive behavior is a best-seller. Like the title of the book, she herself is “driven.” She’s a shoulder-padded, tailored-suit-wearing, compulsive-note-taking straight arrow. Her mentor tells her she’s working too hard and needs to have some fun.

A patient, Billy, tells Maggie that he owes a $25,000 gambling debt and the guy is going to kill him. Moving from her sterile, efficient glass-and-steel world into a film noir setting of darkness, steam, and neon, she goes to the House of Games to confront the gambler, Mike.

He pulls her into his world by a number of steps – first, revealing that Billy only owes $800 (Your client lies to you, I don’t.) Mike asks her to help him put something over on another gambler, which will cancel Billy’s debt (You can be useful, part of the action, not just an observer.) Then she is allowed to “discover” that this in itself is some kind of con. (You’re too smart for us, lady! Let’s all have a good laugh.) Mike and Joey, his older cohort, teach her a short con involving a $20 bill. (You’re one of the guys now; we won’t keep up our pretenses in front of you.)

She proposes doing a study of the con artist world, with Mike, of course, as her guide. He pretends to be surprised, but says okay. (Even though you’re an intellectual, I can see that you deserve to be accepted by the common people, like us ripoff artists, for instance.) He takes her to a Western Union office to demonstrate a more complicated con game. Meanwhile, all this time, Mike is very plainly telling her, in so many words, what a dupe she is, but she refuses to hear. He explains it’s called a confidence game because he is giving the mark his confidence. “Don’t trust nobody!” Mike says. He knows exactly what she wants – “Somebody to come along, possess you, take you into a new thing.” She agrees, and also agrees that she wants to make love with him. They go to a hotel where there are supposedly no available rooms, but Mike swipes another guy’s key. Every step into deception intrigues Maggie more, and she becomes increasingly bold, getting into this outlaw mode.

When she’s anxious about the room’s real tenant returning, Mike says, “If he does, we’ll deal with that thing then.” This kind of stuff really works on her head. She knows her world is conventionally tedious, and knows more spontaneity would do her good. She admires this man who meets the world moment-by-moment, rather than meticulously planning everything out ahead of time.

After they’ve had sex, when they’re getting dressed, there’s more deep conversation. Again, Mike tells the unvarnished truth. “I’m a con man, I’m a criminal.” Maggie asks him, “What am I?” Mike gets all sincere, and reflects, “I think what draws you to me is this. I’m not afraid to examine the rules and to assert myself – and I think you aren’t either.” This is, of course, exactly the kind of thing she wants to hear.

Leaving the hotel, Mike says he’s late for a job with Joey, and Maggie begs to come along. With feigned reluctance, he lets her. (We accept you – one of us!) It’s a scam that has to do with $80,000 that Mike supposedly borrowed from the Mob for this one night. When the mark is out of the room, Joey complains about Maggie’s presence. Which of course gives Mike the opportunity to defend her. (I’m giving you my confidence.) Maggie discovers the mark is really a cop and warns the others. She panics and insists that she has to get out of there, but the cop prevents her from leaving and is shot by Mike. Now she owes him bigtime, and is up to her eyeballs in something very, very bad.

The three flee through the bowels of the hotel. Joey says, “She’s killing us, the bitch is killing us dead,” and gets rough with Maggie, allowing Mike yet another chance to be her knight in shining armor, so she owes him yet again. He makes her steal the car that supposedly belongs to the dead cop/mark.

When they’re on some waste land wiping fingerprints off the car, preparing to abandon it, they discover that Joey forgot the briefcase with the $80,000 in it! So now, Mike is sure to be killed by the mob. Maggie goes to her bank and takes out that amount and gives it to Mike, so he can pay the mob and not be killed. But they have to separate and lay low for a while…..

Maggie starts to crack up. She’s out $80,000 which Mike may or may not pay back. Much worse, she’s also an accessory to murder. She turns patients away; cancels her appointments; throws a copy of her book at her diploma, breaking the glass; dumps all the files related to Billy into the wastebasket; and generally demonstrates in other palpable ways how she’s falling apart.

But… she accidentally sees Billy the “patient” drive away in the car she “stole.” Everything begins to fall into place. At night, Maggie goes to the bar where Mike habitually hangs out. She sneaks in through the back door and eavesdrops, as Mike splits up the loot with the gang, all of whom are present – Joey, Billy, the man whose hotel room key they supposedly stole, the mark/cop who was supposedly shot dead… and there’s plenty of jocular conversation about how they made a fool of Maggie.

But the worst is yet to come. Joey remarks how slick it was of Mike to get Maggie’s money and screw her into the bargain, and Mike says, “It was a small price to pay.” On top of everything else, sexual humiliation. Mike’s quip adds the final insult to the already untenable injury of having been bilked out of so much cash by a man using psychological judo on her. As the old saying goes, “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.” Goddam right. In most times and places, offering herself to a man will potentially or actually lead to the payment of a heavy price in some other area of a woman’s life. Aside from the personal pain of being made light of in such a way, by getting mixed up with this bozo, Maggie has risked a brilliant career. So yeah, she’s pissed.

Mike also tells the gang that he’s catching a plane to Vegas at ten that night. So Maggie is at the airport waiting for him. Leading him into a deserted area, she reveals that she knows about how he scammed her. Mike is the voice of sweet reason. “Of course you gave me your trust. That’s what I do for a living.”

“You used me,” Maggie insists. Well, duh!

Mike remains composed. “You learned some things about yourself that you’d rather not know.” He suggests that she just accept the lessons learned and get on with her life.

This script is loaded with nice little ironies. For instance, when Joey complained, “The bitch is killing us….” oh, how right he was. But the big irony here turns out to be: the hang-loose, live-for-the-moment Mike meticulously planned this elaborate long con, with many steps. And look how badly that methodology works out for him, when by-the-book Maggie spontaneously shoots the son of a bitch once and then demands, “Beg for your life.” Instead, he persists in trying to convince her that she was at cause, having sought him out in the first place.

It’s not only Maggie who learns things about herself that she didn’t particularly wish to know. Men always hope to die bravely, and Mike’s last lesson in self-knowledge is that yes, he can maintain his cool in the face of death. After being hit by the second bullet, he says, “Please, sir, may I have another?” Imagine that, a con man quoting Dickens, by way of Animal House. Somehow it doesn’t quite fit, and it might be one of those bits of authorial self-indulgence that could have been left out. On the other hand – why not? Mike’s sardonic remark could be a last-minute clue that maybe we don’t know Mike as well as we thought, and now we never will.

Maggie continues to shoot him until he’s good and dead, picks up her handbag, and calmly leaves. We last see her, a new woman, now in a flattering flowered dress and dangly earrings, at an upscale restaurant, meeting her mentor for lunch. Maggie tells the older woman she’d taken her advice: “When you’ve done something unforgivable, you must forgive yourself.” Then she steals another diner’s lighter.

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The theme here is surveillance, and just to make sure we tune in to the magnitude of the problem, we are told that in the East Berlin of 1984, State Security had 100,000 employees and 200,000 informers. Or informants, whichever you prefer. (Similarly, since the Romanian secret police files were opened, it appears that one out of every three Romanians actively spied on behalf of the government.) It kind of makes you wonder, why are so many citizens willing to snitch on their fellow slaves of the State? The answers are here, as we see several excellently effective ways of making people do terrible things to their neighbors, friends, and families.

So there are these two State Security colleagues. Wiesler teaches at the Stasi academy, and we get a taste of what he’s about when he shows his class an educational film about the effects of sleep deprivation on a detainee. One student says it’s inhuman, and Wiesler puts an x by his name on the class seating chart.

Among other charming customs, Wiesler demonstrates the trick chair, with a place to put a piece of cloth to collect an odor sample for the dogs – which he says is done at every interrogation.

What else are these aspiring Stasi agents taught? For one thing, if a suspect is so bold as to suggest that they’re arresting the wrong person, that alone is reason enough for an arrest. Because, you see, the secret police don’t make mistakes. By the same kind of reasoning, a totally innocent person, as now in the US, can be arrested for resisting arrest. If you have the nerve to assert that you’re the wrong person, that alone is proof of guilt.

According to Stasi wisdom, a calm and quiet suspect equals a guilty suspect. Supposedly, an innocent person will get increasingly angry about being accused of something. Yeah, as if any prisoner is given the benefit of the doubt, or a second chance. In these people’s hands, feeling anger, let alone acting out, is all the excuse they need to reduce you to a bloody pulp – physically, mentally, or both.

Wiesler’s old classmate, and what passes for a friend in this kind of a society, is Grubitz, who is in charge of rooting out subversive artists. The German Democratic Republic only has one non-subversive writer who is read in the West – which in itself, you’d think, would tell them something. This paragon of politically correct thinking is the playwright, Georg Dreyman

We get to see part of a socialist play, what passes for culture in a country where the government runs the arts. Wiesler and Grubitz are in the audience. Grubitz chats with a party official who lets it be known that the playwright needs to be brought down. He doesn’t say why, just then, but it soon becomes apparent that he wants Dreyman’s woman, the leading lady. So they get to work. Dreyman’s apartment is thoroughly bugged, and Wiesler is put in charge of the surveillance. He sets up a listening post in the building’s attic.

The little details are great. When Dreyman tries to talk to the party boss about unblacklisting another writer, the apparatchik shows his contempt by revoltingly, insolently chewing his food in the playwright’s fact. Later, when Dreyman has a party at his apartment, this blacklisted writer, Jerska, sits alone and tells supporters not to associate with him, lest they be tainted. As if they weren’t anyway. Not long afterward, Jerska hangs himself, which is one of the factors that motivate Dreyman to quit being a party-approved writer and start fighting back.

The actress Christa-Maria wants Dreyman to wear a tie for his party – always a bad sign in a girlfriend. And she secretly takes pills. It’s a silent vice, so the eavesdropping Wiesler doesn’t pick up on it.

Grubitz and Wiesler are in this together, as both their careers depend on nailing Dreyman for something, to get him out of the way and leave Christa-Maria in the party bigwig’s hands. Wiesler makes sure the playwright sees her getting out of the bigwig’s car, and overhears the arrangement of another meeting. After being mauled by the party boss, Christa-Maria takes a long shower, and more pills, to cope with the degradation, and doesn’t tell Dreyman what’s going on.

Wiesler has an encounter with a visiting call girl and mentally compares this transaction to the love between Christa-Maria and Dreyman. Searching Dreyman’s apartment, he steals the Brecht book and reads about love. I don’t quite understand this part, because the movie seems to imply that Brecht was a forbidden author, but apparently he went over okay in East Germany during Communist rule. After Jerska’s suicide, Dreyman plays the piano and the eavesdropping Wiesler is absorbed in the music. Dreyman says,
“You know what Lenin said about Beethoven’s Appassionata. ‘If I keep listening to it, I won’t finish the revolution.’”

So, what with one thing and another, Wiesler starts to have a change of heart. I swear I also thought of a screenplay based on this concept – but as usual, didn’t get around to it until too late. We see an indication of Wiesler’s transformation when he backs off from making a little boy betray his father. Another one of the rules the Stasi live by is that people don’t change. But Wiesler knows that he’s changing, and that brings into doubt a lot of other military/government maxims.

Dreyman tells Christa-Maria he knows about the party boss, and about her drug habit, and asks her not to keep the date with the party boss. But she goes out anyway. Meanwhile, Wiesler, off duty, gets mechanically, methodically drunk. Christa-Maria comes into bar, and he tries in roundabout way to tell her not to go with the bigwig. She goes home to Dreyman.

Dreyman decides to publish an anti-socialist statement in the West, about all the suicides in this workers’ paradise, and how the government doesn’t even count them any more because the totals would be very incriminating. Dreyman and his friends meet out in the open air and devise a test to determine whether Dreyman’s apartment bugged. But Wiesler, who is growing a conscience, does not report the subversive talk, and this turns out to be the great irony of the situation, because now Dreyman and his friends confidently proceed, in the belief that they’re not being overheard.

Grubitz explains how there are five different kinds of artist, and Dreyman is type 4 – the “hysterical anthropocentrist”. Never put them on trial, because they thrive on it. The better way, and one that involves no actual cruelty, is to put them in solitary with an indefinite sentence. Don’t give them anything to write about, or any other kind of contact. But not giving them anything to write about is moot anyway, because after about ten months of this kind of processing, you can let them out, and most of them never again write or paint or “whatever artists do,” as Grubitz puts it.

The party boss tells Grubitz where Christa gets her pills, and that she should never be seen on the German stage again. When they bring her in, right away she capitulates and offers to do something for State Security. But Grubitz says it’s too late for that. She offers him sex, but that’s no good either. All he wants is to know about the article in Spiegel – which one of her artist friends wrote it?

Grubitz’s task force searches Dreyman’s apartment brutally, ripping things apart. We get a look at the official hypocrisy policy, when the Stasi guy says that of course Dreyman can file for restitution if any damage was done to his belongings, and Dreyman assures him that no damage was done. Wiesler is shocked by the way Grubitz is going after the playwright and tries to protect him. Then, giving Wiesler one last chance, his superior makes him interrogate Christa-Maria. He urges her to save herself and not engage in “senseless heroics.” She rats and tells where the documents and typewriter are. So she believes she will be allowed to continue her career. Which is unlikely, because the party boss has already sworn that she’ll never be employed in the theater again. But she doesn’t know that she betrayed her boyfriend for nothing. The apartment is searched again, but – where the typewriter is supposed to be hidden, all they find is an empty hole. Still, Dreyman knows it was Christa-Maria who betrayed him.

She goes out and runs in front of a truck. Wiesler gets to her first, and tells her he moved the typewriter. Then she dies in Dreyman’s arms.

Grubitz tells Wiesler his career is over, and he is assigned to the lowest rung of Stasi duties, spending four years steaming envelopes open so the “security” goons can read their contents. The Berlin Wall comes down. In two more years, Dreyman finds out that he had been under surveillance after all. At the research center he examines his own files and that the Stasi agent assigned to eavesdrop on him had been covering for him. He figures out it must have been the agent, not Christa-Maria, who moved the typewriter and saved him from arrest, years before. He looks up information on the agent formerly assigned to him and checks out Wiesler from a distance. Nice twist – now he’s spying on the guy who used to surveil him, only for a different purpose. Two more years go by, and a Dreyman’s novel is published, “Sonata for a Good Man,” and it’s dedicated to Wiesler, not by name but by his Stasi agent number, as it appeared in the files. Wiesler sees the book cover in a store window and goes in to check it out. He sees that the book is dedicated to him, and finds some measure of vindication.

“Sonata for a Good Man” was also the title of the music score Jerska gave Dreyman before he committed suicide. It seems that one of the things we are meant to take away from this film is the importance of mutual support under an oppressive government. It’s all-important that the good people stick up for each other, and acknowledge each other for being good-hearted. Too many reformist movements are just a mass of infighting and holier-than-thou posturing and all that noise. It’s no wonder a Big Brother government can so easily rule, when the people are all busy quibbling with each other over details.

The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen) 2007
written and directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck.

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