Monday, February 25, 2008

The Lives of Others

Like many movie fans around the world, I sat back with confidence that my Oscar pick for Best Foreign Language Film – “Pan’s Labyrinth” – was going to be announced. Then, I was startled to hear the words “The Lives of Others” instead. The year had belonged to the nominee from Mexico. Why did this unknown film from Germany take the honor? Since then, I have of course seen “The Lives of Others” and I now know why it won. It’s one really great movie.

“The Lives of Others” interweaves the stories of an intelligence officer in 1984 East Germany, Captain Gerd Wiesler, and his subject, the playwright Georg Dreyman, suspected of being a Western sympathizer. I’m not going to dwell on the snarl of paranoia and politics involved in this situation though. Sure, the characters fear for their future lives at every twist around a corner and turn of a phrase. (Teaching a “getting a suspect to crack under verbal interrogation 101” class, Wiesler marks an “x” by a student’s name, indicating certain expulsion or worse, for merely suggesting Wiesler’s tactics are too harsh.) But the film is more universal.

“The Lives of Others” tells the twin stories of a man who is great at a job he finds distasteful and two men who have difficulty pursuing their ideal occupations. A person’s strengths and available occupations are seldom an ideal match, in 1984 East Germany or any other time and place.

Everyone and everything is given a very personal rather than political motivation. Wiesler is only tasked with gathering information about Dreyman because the Minister of Culture lusts for Dreyman’s girlfriend, stage actress Christa-Maria Sieland, and wants Dreyman out of the way. The turning point that sends both Wiesler and Dreyman hurtling down a new shared path toward their intricately interwoven fates is the suicide of a character close to Dreyman.

“The Lives of Others” reminds me of the “political” thrillers from Hollywood in the 1970s. It has the intricacy and attention to procedure that distinguished such films as “3 Days of the Condor” and “All the President’s Men,” the kind of meticulous focus on the details of how a suspect is interrogated or how a writer is identified by the typeface of his typewriter that recently inspired such films as “Zodiac” and “Michael Clayton.” More than any film though, “The Lives of Others” reminds me of Francis Coppola’s surveillance masterpiece “The Conversation,” a film that was a clear influence.

In Coppola’s film, Gene Hackman’s Harry Caul records the lives of others much like Wiesler. Both men are portrayed as masters with ears so finely tuned that they can “see” with them. (At a key moment, Wiesler seems to “see” the hiding place of a typewriter by sound alone.) And both men are very lonely and have little in the way of lives outside of what they experience by listening to others, the real story of both films.

Wiesler first spies Dreyman and actress Sieland at a performance of a play written by the former and starring the latter. The film then goes on to make fascinating play with the idea of audience and performer. Wiesler takes in what he hears between Dreyman and Sieland in Dreyman’s bugged apartment as if it were a play. At one point, Wiesler runs into Sieland in a pub and expresses his admiration for her performance. We are left wondering though just which “performance” he means, on stage or on his surveillance tape.

“The Lives of Others” diverges from the 1970s “cinema of loneliness” (film critic Robert Kolker’s phrase) approach filled with loner anti-heroes and downer endings and ultimately hits an uplifting note. At three key points in the story, the phrase – or a piano melody of the title – “Sonata for a Good Man” pops up and “The Lives of Others” becomes a film about how goodness can surface in unlikely situations and in unexpected people.

At film’s end, Wiesler buys a novel written by Dreyman. When the clerk asks if he wants it gift wrapped, Wiesler declines saying, “It’s for me.” I’ll leave it for you to discover the simple beauty of that final line.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008


There is great tension during a scene late in “Offside,” an Iranian film directed by the great Jafar Panahi, when the Iranian soccer team commits an offside penalty. Will this cost them the close game? Will it spoil their hopes of going to the World Cup?

The “Offside” of the title is also used metaphorically. In soccer, an offside penalty occurs when offensive players race past the opposing defense in an attempt to receive a wide open pass and score a goal. You might say the offense gets too uppity. In Iran, women are forbidden to attend men’s sporting events. “Offside” focuses on a number of “uppity” female soccer fans who attempt to sneak their way into a soccer game between Iran and Bahrain, and get caught. The film centers on how they’re penalized for this act.

“Offside” is a very accessible film. It’s a great place to start for anyone unfamiliar with Iranian cinema and should cultivate an appetite for seeing more when Cinema 100 brings it to town next Thursday. I’ve watched several dozen films from Iran and consider the nation’s cinema one of the most vital and beautiful in the world. Iranian cinema is also easily digested by Western audiences due to its close – but not dead-on – affinities with Hollywood genres.

“Children of Heaven,” another personal favorite from Iran, tells a delicate story of two children and a pair of shoes that is connected to the Hollywood sports film during its climax. “Offside” also benefits from its resemblance to Hollywood. I’m thinking of films where a group of character types are trapped together and forced to come to terms. “12 Angry Men” and “The Big Chill” are examples.

Above all though, “The Breakfast Club” comes to mind. Both films focus on a group of young people stereotypes held in detention. Both give these characters – and the audience – an opportunity to see beyond the stereotypes. Both films end with a celebratory sense of elation when the characters are released. In “Offside” though, this is all handled with more restraint. No “brat pack” theatrics, just a fine ensemble of non-actors and a lot of nuanced improvisation.

“Offside” tells a simple story in three parts. The first follows one young woman’s attempt to gain entrance to the big game. Shot guerilla fashion amidst the pregame chaos, this sequence is stunningly suspenseful (the game depicted is real and is opportunistically used by Panahi in documentary-like fashion). This section is also casually funny. Everywhere the handheld camera turns, we catch glimpses of other women trying to gain access to the stadium by unconvincingly dressing as men.

When our young woman is captured, she is tossed into a make-shift jail along with other similar young women. The focus here is on frustrated discussion between the young women and their jailors. The male guards are especially frustrated because they too are being prevented from seeing the game. This section features a very clever digression when one of the women needs to use the men’s room – there are no women’s rooms, obviously. She is forced to wear a poster depicting a soccer star over her face to disguise her identity and is asked to close her eyes while inside the men’s room because there may be graffiti inappropriate for a woman’s eyes.

The final section has the women being transported to jail aboard a bus while listening to the final minutes of the game on a radio with a humorously uncooperative antenna. This leads to fireworks and that elated release, a scene of being set free even more satisfying than at the conclusion of “The Breakfast Club.”

“Offside” draws parallels placing it in a universal context. The male-only access to everything from buses to sporting events to restrooms is reminiscent of Black History in America. There is even a story about a women-only soccer team with the male coach forced to lead the team by cell phone from the stadium parking lot. In a subtle touch, this connection is made clear by Panahi. The most politically motivated of the young women wears a baseball cap bearing the number 1862; the year Abraham Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation freeing the slaves.