BootsnAll Travel Network

The Lives of Others

Came home from work today and watched a film of such power that I’m not even going to attempt a “review” of it, though I have to say something. Das Leben der Anderen, or The Lives of Others swept the German Lola awards; it got the Oscar for Best Foreign Film in the USA this year; and it is, for me, unforgettable. There are reviews everywhere already, like this brief but rather ecstatic one from a London critic, or this slick and shiny one from The New Yorker. But the film is a work of great intelligence, sensitivity, and power, much larger and quieter and more intelligent than its reviews. In the “Making of the Film” feature, there is a bit that made me gasp out loud.

The young, young man who wrote the screenplay, directed the film, and supervised the editing and shaping of the film post-production is Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. The film, set in East Germany in the 80s, examines people who were subject to intense surveillance by the state police, and it takes the audience into the mind of a crack interrogator, “Gerd Wiesler,” played with intensity and precision by Ulrich Muehe: what a gift that performance is. Muehe had stomach cancer; he must have known this was his last piece of work. He died soon after the awards were made.

The creator of the film talks about the research he did for the film, with people who were imprisoned and interrogated and also with people who were the interrogators and bureaucrats. He studied the people and then he studied the places, and he says, “I think that places store memories, that feelings felt in a particular place don’t just disappear–they are somehow still in the stones.”

That is exactly what Paula Luttringer says about the places in Argentina where women were kidnapped, where people were interrogated, tortured, killed. She takes pictures of the walls, the stones, the places that hold those memories.

Muehe was an “East German”–he lived there throughout the repressive years, and he served as script consultant to von Donnersmarck, especially concerning specific language that was (or was not) used in the GDR in those years. The emphasis on language, the specific words that were permissible or not permissible, the language of ideocrats is vital, because language is deeply revealing. If we use their language, we become what they want us to be: this is the danger of jargon. This is why I duck and run when I hear theoretical feminism: its language is so ugly, so needlessly complex, all tangled and heaped on itself. Whenever the language with which people talk to each other about their work becomes a jargon understood only by a select few…when language becomes a way to keep people out or to hold them down or to strip them of their blood and spit and hair…it is poison.

Language holds the key to vision–or the lack of vision. Language is politics. I saw that in South Africa, and I have seen it in colleges and universities. Whether ideocrats serve in the hideous business of torture and interrogation, or merely in the dreary business of turning the art and mystery of education into a lifeless bean-counting exercise, language is the key to everything. Words reveal the quality and timbre of the souls of those who use them. That’s twice today I have riffed on that subject. I usually get worked up about issues that are logs in my own eyes. I must need to look to my own language, then.

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-1 responses to “The Lives of Others”

  1. stephenbrody says:

    “Words reveal the quality and timbre of the souls of those who use them” Yes indeed, understand that and you understand a lot

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