Monday, 15 February 2010

Reflections On The Lives Of Others, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, Germany 2005

It's Oscar time again, and with Germany nominated yet again makes me reflect on the last time a German film won for Best Foreign Language Film, which was Donnersmarck's highly acclaimed The Lives of Others, in 2005. Writing or reflecting on the Oscars requires to take them seriously in the first place, which, frankly, I don’t, for that would also require me to accept that a film such as, say Braveheart (MelGibson; USA 1995) is the best film to come out of the US in that particular year, and that I can’t, when in fact, I considered Sense and Sensibility (Ang Lee; USA 1995) to be far superior. However, since we’re at it (and so is everybody else) - let’s talk Osacr’s!

What I did rejoice in that year, though, is the fact that The Lives of Others beat its main contender Pan’s Labyrinth (Guillermo del Toro; Mexico 2006), a film I deem entirely unworthy of the hype and buzz that surrounded it on the run-up to the Oscars as Carlos Saura had already tackled a similar issue (a child coping with the exigencies of fascism by fleeing into a fantasy world) in his masterpiece Cria Cuervos (Spain 1975) in a far cleverer, far subtler way, by finding a cinematic language which, by puzzling the viewer also challenged him, thus giving him much food for thought and something to ‘take home’ instead of presenting all the answers on a platter as Toro does in his film. Pan, to me, simply is another sign of our times in which easily digestible images have precedence over content. Therefore, I dubbed Pan a Lord of the Rings set in fascist Spain.

Needless to say, The Lives of Others isn’t exactly what I’d call demanding on the viewer, either. However, unlike Pan, it is a film that has no pretence and simply sets out to tell a story - and Donnersmarck tells his story well. Moreover, it is a story that needed to be told on a topic that has so far received scant attention from filmmakers. Therefore, unlike Pan, Donnersmarck’s film has none to compare it with as he stepped on new territory. No surprise then, that a variety of Hollywood’s premier filmmakers, among them the late Sydney Pollack, are - or were - in negotiations with Donnersmarck to do a Hollywood remake of the story. This I have yet to comprehend for if anything, Donnersmarck’s film is in fact a Hollywood film made in Germany, and I don’t mean it in a derogatory way, for where Hollywood filmmakers (as well as American writers) excel in comparison to their German counterparts, is in telling stories. The best Hollywood films are simply stories - that is, with a beginning, a middle, and an end - told well. As such, The Lives of Others like other German films that have made in onto the international circuit of late, such as Goodbye Lenin, The Downfall, or Sophie Scholl - The Last Days, are remarkable insofar as previously the German films that received international attention - and were subsequently showered with awards - were films which at home hardly anybody saw: Wings of Desire(Wim Wenders, W Germany 1987), Fitzcarraldo (Werner Herzog; W Germany 1982), Germany, Pale Mother(Helga Sanders-Brahms, W Germany 1981), etc. What seems to have changed is that the films that now not only scoop awards in the festival circuit, but also get distributed outside Germany, are films that were box-office successes at home and abroad and they are by and large critically acclaimed in all territories. The Lives of Others received rave reviews in the US and France, and so did Goodbye Lenin. Their box-office success is legend : Donnersmarck's film has an accumulated box-office record of $19m, which, for a film with a reported budget of only $ 2,0, is no mean feat. Of course, the French still have trouble coming to terms with this new German phenomenon. As a press agent of a French distributor once told me, ‘German films are at the same time too close and too far away from home’, referring to France. Hence the fact that German films are still far less popular in Cannes than they are with the French public at large, not to mention with the members of the Academy, for let’s not be fooled: it would be quite a stretch to talk of any German film in terms of being a box-office hit in the US. But then, the same could be said about almost any foreign film shown in the US, Almodovar’s films and a few others excepted.

Still, one can’t but wonder what happened to make German fare so popular all of a sudden …? Is it the fact that since Dieter Kosslick has taken over the Berlin International Film Festival and established a side-section called, ‘Perspective German Film’, German cinema receives more attention as it has a platform again by making new local product accessible to foreign distributors? Or is it that German films are really that much better, or more interesting, than they were previously? Or has the perception of Germany and German films shifted to such a degree that it’s become ‘hip’ (again) to watch a German film? Or is it because German films have found a way of blending conventional Hollywood story-telling with topics from their own backyard (e.g. the Third Reich, the separation and subsequent reunification of East and West), thus making the stories more accessible to the average viewer? In an article in the FAZ following Donnersmarck’s win, the writer deplores the fact that ‘unlike other contenders for Best Foreign Language Film‘, The Lives of Others is far more conventionally told’, something he blames on the fact that ‘what the Academy expects of German films are films that deal with Germany’s history’. Although there is some truth in it, as indeed, the only German film ever to be nominated for an Oscar that did not have a historical topic was Caroline Link’s Beyond Silence(Germany 1996), a film I deemed mediocre and luckily it lost out to Netherland‘s entry, Character, Donnersmarck’s film marks a departure insofar as it is the first German film to win that does not revolve around the Third Reich.

A film which, unfortunately, was entirely overlooked by the Academy (as well as by the European Film Academy and the German Film Academy) is Requiem (Hans-Christian Schmid; Germany 2006), although it is arguably a better film and one, I might add, that does indeed have a historical subtext, albeit a vague and subtle one, for what are we to make of Michaela/ Sandra Hueller’s parents if not regarding their bigotry, their obedience, their orderliness, in fact their whole demeanour , particularly, the mother’s, as the very prerequisites that made the Third Reich possible? But this subtle undercurrent may well have been too discrete for audiences to pick up on. This subtleness, the bleakness that permeates the whole film, its off-bear character, would indeed have made it an ideal contender for Cannes - had it not been shown at the Berlinale earlier. Unlike any other organisation the Association of German Film Critics voted it the Best German film of the year. Alas, since the creation of the German Film Academy, modelled on its American counterpart, their weight in the German film industry has become negligible. It seems, that this is just another indicator that at least on a certain level, German Film has gone down the American way altogether, starting with the fact that a great many German filmmakers and actors are now working on both continents (Franka Potente, Daniel Bruehl, Martina Gedeck, Oliver Hirschbiegel, Marco Kreuzpaintner, etc.) to the way we tell our stories, of which The Lives of Others is just one example, and which includes Goodbye Lenin and Sophie Scholl - The Last Days. Personally, I don’t necessarily consider this, shall we say,‘Hollywood approach’ to be a bad thing as long as there continues to be a diversity, and room for filmmakers like Haisenberg, Petzold, Dresen, and Veiel, who counterbalance this trend by telling their own, small, although by no means insignificant, stories.

That said, why Donnersmarck found it necessary in his Oscar acceptance speech to extend his thanks to his American distributor and to governor Schwarzenegger is a mystery indeed. For me, it put a damper on the film’s win since I couldn’t help thinking of Volker Schloendorff’s acceptance speech in 1980 when he won for The Tin Drum, a speech that was humble, moving, and rendered with much less arrogance.