December 17, 2010
Das Boot, Das Leben der Anderen, Der Spiegel, Film, film music, Florian Henkel von Donnersmark, Gabriel Yared, GDR, Germany, Martina Gedeck, movies, Oscars, poster, review, score, Sebastian Koch, soundtrack, Stasi, Stephane Moucha, The Lives of Others, Ulrich Muhe, Varese Sarabande
Not since “Das Boot” way back in 1981 has a German language film received this much international praise and recognition. But Foreign Language Oscar and all the hype aside, Florian Henkel von Donnersmark’s Stasi drama is in many ways a very personal film for and of the German people. The East-German Communist state’s obsession with spying on its people and the level of detail and finesse with which it was carried out is shocking. However “The Lives of Others” is never bogged down by this nor does it even try to bring across an anti-Communist message. Furthermore, serving up a very generous dose of black humour and mystery alongside the drama, the examination is as entertaining and intriguing as it is thought-provoking.
The story (also by von Donnersmark) is concerned with obsessive Stasi surveillance man Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe), determined to crack the apparently squeaky-clean playwright and author Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch). However after bugging his apartment and gradually noting ever detail of Dreyman’s life and in particular his relationship with actress Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck), Wiesler, his own life drab and empty, begins to question which side he’s on. When Dreyman is convinced by his friends to write a (for the GDR) controversial article to be published in western news magazine Der Spiegel, Wiesler chooses to protect the couple, putting in danger his rising career in the Stasi. With the fantastic screenplay, the film is accomplished on every possible level, from its muted colours of drab greys and browns to the outstanding performances from the entire cast, “The Lives of Others” really does have masterpiece written all over it. It is a very difficult balance to maintain between exposing the horrifying details of surveillance such as an odour sample from each person to be used for sniffing dogs, or the cruel means of interrogation, and the impossible situations people were placed in by this surveillance system, in other words the human aspects and emotions. But in his directorial debut, von Donnersmark has conjured just the right mix of both and created a world that will stay with you long after the credits roll.
For Mühe who was himself investigated by the secret-service of the GDR (and tragically died just over a year after the film’s release), this is the role of his career. His portrayal of the chilling and distant secret-service employee is extremely cold yet he manages to draw the audience in and sympathise with his situation. Koch meanwhile also acts very well as the dramatist who would do no wrong but, troubled by the suicide of an author friend, eventually turns to writing anti-GDR and anti-Stasi material. Not once does he suspect that his every move is in fact being recorded, so the climax of the story becomes all the more significant for him as he realises that it was Wielser who in fact saved his career while at the same time sacrificing his own. That the pair were not nominated for Oscars is surprising but highlights once again that the Academy needs to open up to foreign productions in other categories as well. A nomination for Best Original Screenplay should have been the minimum requirement.
The film’s score was co-written by Lebanese composer Gabriel Yared and Stephane Moucha. Their contribution is significant with music often placed very high up in the sound mix, thus really enunciating the drama and emotion on screen. Despite this, the music is relatively restrained, complementing the action rather than distracting from it. The soundtrack is based around two distinct themes, one for playwright Dreyman and his girlfriend, the other used to accompany scenes of Stasi activity. Both utilise a largely string ensemble to conjure melodrama for the former and a pulsating action rhythm for the latter. Mingled with the original score are several songs as well as classical works, mostly source music. The European album features these as well as the score cues while the american album from Varese Sarabande is a score-only approach. While some might argue that the score fulfils its purpose adequately and no more, the continuous string beats serve the film very well in making the listener ever so slightly nervous. Definitely a recommended soundtrack.
In summation, “The Lives of Others” is an excellent portrayal of human failure and personal tragedy amidst a backdrop of political and intelligence intrigue. Sadly, some of the dark humour is lost in its translation from German, so it is certainly worth while researching these bits to complement your appreciation of the film. Or you could learn German. In any case, this is filmmaking you really shouldn’t want to miss both in its spy and drama genre and as an introduction to German films in general you simply won’t find any better.
As it’s coming up to Christmas I hope to have a a few more reviews at the ready to publish soon. If you have any thoughts on the film please do leave a comment and I will answer you. Also please spread the word about my reviews by sharing on Facebook and Twitter. Thanks and all the best!
September 29, 2010
Action, Film, Thriller
A Very Private Gentleman, Anton Corbijn, Castel del Monte, Das Boot, Film, film music, George Clooney, Good Night and Good Luck, Herbert Grönemeyer, James Bond, Jason Bourne, Martin Booth, movies, Out of Sight, Paolo Bonacelli, picture, review, Roland Joffe, Rowan Joffe, score, Sommer in Lesmona, Syriana, The American, The Peacemaker, Thelka Reuten, Three Kings, Up in the Air, Violante Placido, Wolfgang Petersen
Once upon a time in the distant past of the 1990s, films like “Out of Sight”, “The Peacemaker” or Gulf War venture “Three Kings” has George Clooney firmly billed as an action star. However the dawning of the new millennium has brought certain change to the one-time Bruce Wayne and Dr. Doug Ross: Again and again Clooney has made forays into drama and ‘serious’ film-making, be that through films like “Syriana”, last year’s excellent “Up in the Air” or his very own “Good Night, and Good Luck”, while at the same time maintaining the sort of suave cool befitting a James Bond or indeed a Danny Ocean. And perhaps at face value “The American” could be perceived as a throwback to those formative late 90s. But let the title not delude you, director Anton Corbijn and his star have produced something that is decidedly un-American: Indeed the feel and pacing can very well be termed art-house or European.
Screenwriter Rowan Joffe (son of Roland Joffe of “The Mission” fame) adapts the story from Martin Booth’s 1990 novel “A Very Private Gentleman” which takes the set-up of a very classic spy tale: Cold assassin Jack (the Clooney) is at a mid-life crisis, pursued across a continent and takes on one last job that will let him escape the espionage world forever. Forced to lie low in the remote Italian town of Castel del Monte, he gradually becomes attached to and falls in love with beautiful prostitute Clara (Violante Placido) but of course his past is destined to catch up with him. It’s not so much that there’s a huge twist at the end, “The American’s” captivating feature is doubtlessly its moody and atmospheric tone. There’s very little dialogue and overall the movie is very slow and quiet. It’s not a false sense of security Corbijn is lulling us into but rather stretches the audience out on a taught string. From the opening in snow-covered Swedish tundra which then yields to beautiful and extremely eerie arial shots of Italian countryside, the silence is as deafening as any explosion. As a result, when outbursts of violence do punctuate the storyline, they create even greater jump-out-of-your-seat moments.
However the entire movie really rests on Cooney’s shoulders, who stands at the head of a largely unknown cast (to average Joe moviegoer eyes anyway). A difficult task maybe but not for Clooney who has proven time and time again to be a master of his art. It’s a minimalist and subdued performance, many shots for example consist of him staring blankly into space. Similarly in few scenes he shares with other characters like Paolo Bonacelli’s priest or Thelka Reuten’s fellow assassin there’s very little emotion on show, only Placido’s character can eventually get under the cracks in his hardened personality. It’s not the kind of performance that usually wins Oscar plaudits like Ryan Bingham in “Up in the Air” but it’s still fascinating to watch Clooney weave himself into these kind of roles, backed up all the way by Corbijn’s lingering photography. As an audience we are drawn in very close, watching for example extended sequences of firearm modification and assembly. This style may be rather difficult for those expecting a Bond film to swallow but those who have a sufficient attention span are very likely to be rewarded with some great thrills and suspense, like those old thrillers used to be.
Herbert Grönemeyer is probably best known for his acting role in Wolfgang Petersen’s submarine classic “Das Boot” but is in fact a very popular singer-songwriter in Germany. “The American” represents his first movie score since a 1986 TV film called “Sommer in Lesmona”. His music to accompany George Clooney is a mixture of some beautiful reflections on piano, joined by orchestral strings and percussion to provide the suspense. Indeed many scenes in the film are so silent, Grönemeyer’s music is the main source of tension and even though it is placed relatively high in the mix does an excellent job of only registering subconsciously. Unlike the film, the music makes no references to the genre that inspired it but despite this it’s an excellent effort and we can only hope to hear more of Grönemeyer in the near future.
“The American” is probably not the best film in the “disillusioned spy” category but thanks to an excellently measured performance from its leading man and direction that knows exactly where it’s going, this film has a pretty good shot at it. All in all it makes for an excellently suspenseful two hours, which can claim it’s place next to the Bonds and the Bournes of this world. For fans of art-house and European style films (love the retro-poster-art by the way!) or for those seeking an introduction, it comes highly recommended.
Another review done. This is the first time I’ve tried out a new way of presenting the ratings. If you like it or if you preferred the old way please don’t hesitate to tell me about it by leaving a comment. Also feel free to follow me on Twitter or subscribe to the RSS or e-mail subs. Until next time then, all the best to you!
May 9, 2010
Amadeus, Atonement, Berlin, Birds, Blood Diamond, Cate Blanchett, Crouching Tiger, Das Boot, Film, Forrest Gump, Gladiator, Hidden Dragon, Hitchcock, Independence Day, JFK, Leaving Cert, North By Northwest, Psycho, Rain Man, Robin Hood, Russell Crowe, Saving Private Ryan, Schindler's List, Se7en, Seven, Shawshank Redemption, The Last of the Mohicans, Titanic, Vertigo
As many of you will know, I will be extremely busy over the next two months. The Leaving Cert is a looming just around the corner and the amount of study ground I still have to make up before then is unfortunately immense. After a short respite I will then be helping my parents relocate from Cork to Berlin in July however this will most likely not prevent me from writing reviews to the films I already know pretty well.
So then, I regret to announce that from now until Tuesday, June 22nd (Chemistry – last exam and then freedom!) I will be able to write only one more review. That review will be for the new “Robin Hood” film starring Russell Crowe and Cate Blanchett. I’m looking forward to seeing it and will have to review it straight away.
However once the LC hurdle has been jumped I intend to write a good few reviews over the summer months. This may see more than one review a week being posted. ‘Sur how bad… as we might say. Here then is a list of some of the films I hope to review then. This list is by no means definitive, titles may be added and removed as I see fit.
From June 22nd onwards (In alphabetical order):
- Amadeus (1984)
- Atonement (2007)
- Blood Diamond (2006)
- Das Boot (1981)
- Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)
- Forrest Gump (1994)
- Gladiator (2000)
- Independence Day (1996)
- JFK (1991)
- The Last of the Mohicans (1992)
- Rain Man (1988)
- Saving Private Ryan (1998)
- Schindler’s List (1993)
- Se7en (1995)
- The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
- Titanic (1997)
As you may have noticed I have not chosen any movies earlier than the 80s. The reason for this is that newer films will generate more interest than old ones however I do intend to review some of the Hitchcock masterpieces such as “North By Northwest,” “Vertigo,” “Psycho,” and “The Birds” at some point in the future.
To all my regular and irregular readers I hope you can bear with me while I complete my exams and look forward to a new batch of reviews in the Summer. “Robin Hood” should be posted next weekend.
So for now it’s adios amigos!
P.S. If you have any comments, feedback or indeed exam encouragement (!) feel free to leave a comment. Or if you have any suggestions for other reviews that you think would be important and do not feature on my list please do the same.