Saturday, February 10, 2007

GERMAN CINEMA: Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others) Redux

Since interviewing Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck a few weeks ago, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences elected not to be cruel and included von Donnersmarck among the hopeful quintet vying for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Feature. There are rumblings afoot that he has a dark horse chance of winning and this continues to agitate a coterie of critics who make up a loud minority. No less than a week ago The Lives of Others took away the KPN Audience Award at the Rotterdam International Film Festival. The film's editor, Patricia Rommel, accepted the cash prize of 7,500 Euro on behalf of filmmaker von Donnersmarck, from Ivo Opstelten, Mayor of Rotterdam. And as ever, Dave Hudson at The Greencine Daily has made my research effortless by compiling the film's most recent reviews.

Greencine's most recent compendium of critical feedback is noteworthy for tossing in a new wrench, namely the Film Forum screening of Toussaint/Iannetta's documentary The Decomposition of the Soul. Exploring the same subject matter but by a different approach, I now feel as if I am watching Mattel's Rock'em Sock'em Robots knocking each others blocks off with critics wagering bets on the side, their fists clenched and their grimaces tense. I almost feel a documentary should be made about the critical tussle surrounding von Donnersmarck's fictional treatment of the Stasi era. Perhaps we could title it: The Reviews of Others? Then again, perhaps not. Perhaps we should just let sleeping dogs lie? It's hard to do that, though, when the polarization is so titillating and thought-provoking.

I'm reminded of that encounter between the songwriter and his producer in Stephen Sondheim's Merrily We Roll Along: "That's great," the producer sings, "That's swell. The other song as well. It isn't every day you get a score this strong; but, buddy, if I may there's only one thing wrong. There's not a song they can hum. There's not a song that goes bum-bum-bumbedum. Give me a song that goes bum-bum-bumbedum; give me a melody. Why won't you toss them a crumb? What's wrong with letting them tap their toes a bit? I'll let you know when Stravinsky has a hit. Give me a melody!"

If von Donnersmarck has tossed "a crumb" at moviegoing audiences that actually entertains them and gets them to "tap their toes a bit", let alone vote the film their favorite, audience after audience, festival after festival, country after country, I don't quite follow that this makes it any less eligible for praise nor award. I think it's great to have a movie that audiences enjoy even if its scriptural contrivances irritate some critics to no end. How could it be otherwise? Isn't it the role of a critic to be irritated when audiences enjoy something they shouldn't? I'm being facetious, of course, but sometimes it seems truth is stranger than fiction. Or should that be stranger than friction?

The film that has been "obscenely lauded" (as Slant's Ed Gonzalez puts it) now appears suspect for having pleased the masses. Should it win the statuette, it might end up being hated for having done so.

More directly, Robert Koehler commented on my interview with von Donnersmarck over at Twitch and granted permission to port his comment over here to The Evening Class. I place it here not so much to kick a sleeping dog as to express my fascination with the process by which any respective critics circle comes up with their choices. I appreciate Koehler providing a corrective glimpse into that process even if I don't completely agree with some of his deeply-held convictions. His point about the films that have been altogether overlooked, however, is well-taken and seems somewhat a fact of critical life that the entire system of nominations and awards is frustratingly arbitrary, relative, highly personal and, yes—even as von Donnersmarck insinuated—somewhat cruel. Koehler writes:

Michael—Von Donnersmarck's remarks regarding Scott Foundas were full of inaccuracies.

I am a film critic for Variety in Los Angeles (also for Cinema Scope and Cineaste film journals) and, like Scott, a member of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. Von Donnersmarck and his party were seated at the table adjacent to mine at the LAFCA awards dinner he referred to in your interview. So I was there, just as I was for the voting process which gave Lives of Others our award for best foreign film.

I haven't the faintest idea where Von Donnersmarck pulled out the "fact" that 19 out of 20 critics voted for Lives, and that Scott was the only one opposed. THIS IS BLATANTLY UNTRUE. First, the voting membership of LAFCA numbers close to 50, with well over 30 members voting in person. Second, there were several other foreign films considered for the prize; I and several other critics voted enthusiastically for the vastly superior The Death Of Mr. Lazarescu (The Lives Of Others wasn't even remotely on my own consideration list!), while other films such as Volver were other strongly considered. I can't tell you the exact details, but it's far from the case that Lives of Others was the overwhelming consensus choice of LAFCA; far from it—there was considerable and close competition.

Von Donnersmarck has never met Scott face-to-face, so his characterization of Scott going "blue in the face and almost popped" is pure fantasy. Nonsense. I spoke with Scott right afterwards (I also spoke to the film's star Sebastian Koch), and he was perfectly fine—no blue to be seen. Where and how he dreamed this up is something only he can explain, but I think it's extremely bad form for him to trash a critic with faulty logic, and then invent stuff from whole cloth about him. It's so outlandish that it makes me doubt everything else that Von Donnersmarck says. I find him now to be distinctly untrustworthy.

If anything, I was angrier than Scott; I strongly felt, and still do, that Lives of Others had absolutely no business winning best foreign film of the year—not, certainly, in a year when such masterpieces as Claire Denis' The Intruder, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu and Hou Hsiao Hsien's Three Times were up for consideration.

The Lives Of Others is precisely, though, the kind of foreign film that many film critics who see relatively few foreign films in any given year admire, because it's a safely consensus choice that the "busy" critic can get behind and support, without doing the hard work of spending more time watching a wider swathe of films to consider.

I firmly believe that the primary reason that Lives has received such strong support from Hollywood, and from critics like Kenny Turan who know Hollywood well, and even in some cases speak for them, is that it obediently adheres to every verity of the Robert McKee school of screenwriting—particularly his rock-ribbed conviction that characters must experience a stroke of redemption (this is a religious principle with McKee, whose class I once endured). It's this aspect that you allude to in your interview with Von Donnersmarck, and which he tries to defend. Under the McKee rules, Weisler MUST be redeemed, regardless of the intrinsic dramatic impossibilities involved with this. Now, Von Donnersmarck plays the game of citing supposedly documented examples and supposed precedents for Weisler's behavior, but facts do not in and of themselves make good cinema.

Count me among those who have never bought Weisler's transformation (for every soul softened by music, one can cite—most starkly in the German historical framework—an evil man who loves music), and that the mechanics that provided the excuses and/or "reasons" for his Saul-to-Paul change are never more than that: Pure dramaturgical machinery that's the first sign of bad writing. My severe objections to The Lives Of Others—and which a shocking minority of critics have raised—lie precisely in the film's dramaturgy, the awareness of which is heightened by the nature of the film's subject: A dramatic writer, and the deliberate erosion of his creative life by a man who comes to realize the sins of his ways. It's always a risky gambit for a screenwriter to place a playwright at the center of his drama, since this will only invite deeper scrutiny into the screenplay's dramatic truth. On this fundamental level, The Lives Of Others is a considerable failure, perhaps even a lie. It matters little to me that this is, at least for now, a minority view. In Von Donnersmarck's reductive thinking, a critical view that's in the minority is intrinsically wrong; from much painful experience, I can report this to be profoundly wrong-headed. And, in this case, obviously self-serving.

In the end, your interview only confirms suspicions I previously held that there's something lacking in Von Donnersmarck; I now have confirmation that he's not exactly honest, either. Best! Robert Koehler.

02/24/07 UPDATE: Greencine's Dave Hudson continues to rake in the reviews on The Lives of Others, including Elbert Ventura at Reverse Shot, Vince Keenan at his eponymous website, Rob Nelson for Citypages, Hannah Booth for The Guardian, and most recently Lars-Olav Beier for Der Speigel.


Unknown said...

Michael, thanks for this fascinating post. I've been following this film for a while now, ever since its lauded reception at Telluride. I have to admit, I have found von Donnersmarck to come off as mildly smug, arrogant and unlikeable in his interviews, including the one you conducted with him. Reading Koehler's comments have only cemented this impression a bit further. But thankfully, I think I'm pretty good at separating my impressions of an artist from that of his or her art. And just because a writer-director may be a jerk, doesn't mean that he hasn't created an absolutely stunning portrait of human behavior, a film that grips like no other I've seen in years, and an insightful look at a period of all-too-recent history that we in America would do well to consider more thoughtfully than we have up to now.

Unfortunately, I haven't had the opportunity to see the film myself yet so I really don't know if any of that is true. So many critics have been intimating such that I'm wondering if, should the film fail to live up to the advance praise in any small way, will I be unable to appreciate it on its own terms? It's a little frustrating to be following this whole conversation on the film without being able to see it; thankfully it opens soon.

This may be what Gonzalez is getting at with his "obscenely lauded" comment. I appreciate comments like his, as well as out-and-out pans such as Filmbrain's, because they help bring my expectations back down to earthly levels. Thanks to them, I think I'll be able to judge the film for what it is, and not for the monolith of critical acclaim it might otherwise represent.

Still, I'm mightily impressed with the roster of intelligent people who have gotten behind this film. Including you, of course, and you certainly do not fit Koehler's unfair generalization of critics who don't do "the hard work of spending more time watching a wider swathe of films to consider". Unfair, I say, in part because the Death of Mr. Lazarescu, while outside the McKee template, is hardly some obscure title that doesn't come prepackaged with enough praise from critical muckety-mucks that a "busy" critic with slightly artier leanings might be just as lazy in picking it without considering alternatives (not saying that this describes Koehler, just that it could describe some of Lazarescu's champions) as the straw critics he decries.

I've had no hesitations about expecting the Lives of Others to win its Oscar since the nominations were announced. At this point, not having seen the film, I'll be rather surprised if it doesn't win against its competition. If I were an Oscar bettor I'd put money on it before I'd put money on any of the Best Picture nominees, that's for sure.

Michael Guillen said...

Brian, thanks for your great response. Dennis Harvey saw the film before I did and when I asked him about it, he synopsized it as "solid", which I think is completely fair. And as I mentioned to Florian himself, I liked the film more the second time than the first. I think lowered expectations would serve precisely to appreciate the film on its own merits.

I sometimes consider how difficult it will be for Florian to follow up with as much criticial acclaim as he's received with his first film, so I think he should totally enjoy his praise now.