March 18, 2007
Movie Reviews: Two Amazing Films ... with subtitles
Recently I watched two amazing movies both with a foreign perspective.
The Lives of Others/Das Leben der Anderen (2006)
A couple weeks ago some friends invited me to go see The Lives of Others (Original German Title is: Das Leben der Anderen), I actually knew nothing about this movie, but from my friend's description “a drama about living in East Germany while being spied on by the government ... it's supposed to be awesome” it sounded really interesting. And having seen it I can say that I really felt elevated by the film.
The movie is set in the Former East Germany in the 1980s; not that long ago--and now that I think about it, it seems remarkable that the kinds of things that are depicted in this film were happening in the same decade when kids I knew were learning to ride on skateboards and going to see the Back to the Future and Indiana Jones films at the theater.
The two most important characters in the film are: a renowned East German playwright, Georg Dreyman; and a secret service (“Stassi”) man, Weisler, assigned to monitor his activities. The playwright is an intellectual artist who is modest and smart enough to take the necessary actions to appear as if he believes in the values of the state, and at the start of the film he is not consciously against the invasive socialist government. He represents the best of his artistic friends. His girlfriend is the most revered actress in East Germany, Christa. Things are going well for him except that his favorite director, friend, and mentor has been blacklisted by the government has been living a reclusive life unable to express his creative self. Very soon into the movie that state officials decide that, even despite his apparent loyalty for the East German government, it's in the state's best interest to keep a very close eye on his activities. Although the government does not mediate death to keep people in line, it statesmen live like gods with the power to destroy the lives of the people they govern. The Stassi men maintain a world that is terrifyingly like the vision Orwell had for 1984. Weisler, a very loyal and sincere government servant, and unlike many of his government counterparts as he is not corrupt, is given the job of listening to everything the Dreyman and Christa say and do. After the death of Dreyman's friend the blacklisted director, Dreyman begins to doubt the practices of the government and spends more time with acquaintances who are less in line with the Party Line. Ultimately what makes this movie so interesting and quite a thriller is the ethical crisis faced by Weisler, who over time, despite his loyalty to the state, becomes sympathetic to the artistic couple and has to make choices that will determine their fate or his own.
The Lives of Others did a fantastic job of sharing the oppressive experience of living in East Germany, and in revealing how much freedom I take for granted. It's easy to learn about history without really comprehending the significance of freedom, or understanding what life is like when it is stripped a way and all that you have, including love, is at the mercy of tyrants.
From an outsiders perspective it I felt like this was a tremendous step forward that such a movie as this one would be made in the very place where the thought of doing such a thing would have been practically an act of treason. The movie is by it's existence a light of hope.
5 out of 5
Letters From Iwo Jima (2006)
Tonight I went with some friends to see Clint Eastwood's Letters From Iwo Jima, a “companion” film to Eastwood's Flags of Our Fathers. Letters is written by a Japanese screenwriter, and featuring almost an entirely Japanese cast; I could have easily believed that this was not an American movie production—just as Flags was from the American perspective, Letters is entirely from the Japanese perspective, and to me it felt totally sincere and unbiased by hollywood's influence. And although the two films are about two different kinds of stories, they share the same setting and because of that they are intimately connected, as if they were siblings.
The performances in Letters From Iwo Jima were amazing. And I found the story of these Japanese men in a hopeless situation a lot more compelling. Somehow Ken Watanabe is able to pull off a more commanding and amazing performance than his role in The Last Samari where in my opinion he was a lot more than just a best supporting actor, but instead stole the show (note: he seems to be becoming a popular commodity in Hollywood after is role in Last Samari; since then he as appeared in the latest Batman film, which he was very under-utilized in, and is slated to be in the upcoming movie Wolverine)
Maybe because it is more fresh on my mind than Flags of Our Fathers, but it seemed there is a much greater display of the power of gunpowder in this film than in Flags. There were more explosions, more black earth and flame pouring up from the ground displaced the guns on the war ships, and there was the constant pounding both close and far a way as the Japanese men listened while they spent so much of their time in caves. I think that was the point, to show how tremendously outnumbered they were and what it would be like to be pitted against a force as powerful as the American military.
I'm glad I saw Flags before Letters, and I would recommend that anyone wanting to see Letters see Flags beforehand. Flags was a fantastic movie, but Letters is able to trump it by way of storytelling and emotion.
Both of these movies show the confusion of ethics and the good and the bad on both sides of the battle field, and the extremes in human behavior and the utter tragedy caused by war. While staring up at the opening credits I began to wonder how this film was/will be seen by Japanese audiences, not yet knowing exactly what to expect, but expecting something comparable to Flags of Our Fathers. Having seen a movie that in many ways seemed totally innocent of the influence of Hollywood and totally honest and authentically Japanese, and even better than its counterpart 'Flags', I am even more curious how it has been/will be received in the land where it takes place. 5 out of 5.