The Lives of Others (2006) “Auschwitz of the Soul”

Introductory remarks: The painting selected alongside the headline of the article is Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s “Mountains and Houses In the Snow”. His expressionism conveys the overstressed colors which are on the verge of puncture. For this article, white and its sublime horror presented in the painting are particularly interesting. The symbolism of this use of white will  be present throughout this article.

Regarding the title, I chose “Auschwitz of the Soul”, an expression used by a scholar of the German Democratic Republic, which implies the torture, submission and in the end extermination of souls of subjects in GDR. Kirchner’s painting may as well be an outline for the concentration camps with its strict order of the objects in the painting (the trees most particularly); its composition gives the impression that the mountains are subordinating the houses at the bottom with their immense might.

 

I repeat once again: we must know everything! Nothing can get past us. And some directors are not yet doing this. They don’t even notice it, comrades, some of those among us. They don’t even really understand it yet. That, precisely, is the dialectic of class warfare and of the work of the Chekists.

Erich Mielke, 1981.

[the head of  the  East German Ministry for State Security (Staasi)]

 

The film can be roughly divided into three acts. In the first, the actors are grouped on the stage according to their social status: a writer (Georg Dreyman), a Staasi officer (Wiesler), an actress  (Christa-Maria), a dissident, a theatre director, an ambitious and corrupt Staasi official. They are each shown in their own distinct light and are “waiting” to be fully developed. The interesting part of the first act is the abundant use of irony, even humor, but each of these figures of speech are either very close to cynicism, or are explicitly cynical. The second act begins with a suicide of the theatre director Jerska.

The reading of the film which tends to explain it in the terms of the Staasi officer being closely entangled with the lives of Christa-Maria and Dreyman as a catalyst for his transformation into a “good man” is only partially true. The tears appear in his eyes in the moment when he hears Dreyman playing Beethoven’s Apassionata and claiming that no man who actually hears this music can be evil. Georg’s expressive performance of Apassionata as a eulogy for his dead friend, seems to move the Staasi officer deeply. Georg quoting Lenin’s impressions on the musical piece most likely induced strong feelings in the man loyal to the regime, as well.

 

A few scenes after, Wiesler is reading Brecht’s romantic (in terms of a movement) meditations. It is art, combined with a genuine reaction to the terrible loss that moved Wiesler, not “passionate sex” of the couple as some may argue. Sex “moved” a voyeuristic officer who likes to supervise artists rather than priests since they are more sexually active. Wiesler tells Christa-Maria in a bar that she is a great artist, and he seems quite sincere. It is true that he starts to feel affection for both of them, but the reading of the film which emphasizes the role of carnal  and amorous relationship between the artists as Wiesler’s main motivation is simply incorrect.

In the third act, after Georg succeeds to get his article about suicides in the GDR published in Der Spiegel, the tragedy occurs once again and the transformation of  the Staasi officer Wiesler into a “good man” is complete. He uses all resources available to him to help Georg. Slavoj Žižek calls the presentation of Staasi in The Lives of Others “too modest”, but I tend to object. Horrors of Staasi are not presented on a “massive scale” in terms of intensity of prosecution, yet the horror of elimination of healthy interpersonal relationships and means of self-actualization is all too vivid. The aim of the film is not to present Staasi in a neo-realist manner; a certain romanticism in unavoidable.

Žižek also objects to the presentation of the minister’s vices  (the use of blackmail to get a woman) as a major plot element, since it is a universal phenomenon which is possible (and is often actualized) in all societies, democratic ones as well. That may be true, but the director’s goal was obviously to present a distinctly liberal argument of the power that corrupts absolutely, since it is absolute (lord Acton’s argument, which is disputable as a law of moral natures, but still highly relevant). The moral corruption is present not only at the highest levels of power structures, but at the lowest as well; it does not destroy bodies – it destroys souls. In a reference to Lipsky, I will call it the structurally caused street-level moral corruption.

A cinematic reference relevant to The Lives of Others, and more particularly Staasi’s praxis is F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu. In Murnau’s film count Orlok spreads plague and sends rats to the city as his agents. The plague which Staasi spread was in the form of total control, imprisonment, surveillance and destruction of interpersonal relationships. I will call it the white plague in direct reference to Kirchner’s painting. It is rather invisible, does not aim primarily at the bodies, but souls of its subjects. Orlok’s rats are equivalent to the Staasi informers.

 

Vigorous line:

What is a director if he can’t direct? He’s a projectionist without a film, a miller without corn. He’s nothing.

Albert Jerska

The scene in which Jerska and Georg discuss his position as a theatre director banned to direct is abruptly cut and the shot which succeeds it shows the surveillance apparatus in darkness. This example of powerful editing intimately connects the Staasi with the role of the artists in GDR. Aforementioned Jerska’s thoughts pose a fundamental question of the relationship between artist and his essence which is connected with his artistic work in the most innate manner. If the writer cannot write or director cannot direct, he is stripped of his self, of his innermost being. The most chilling and uncanny phenomenon in the film is the case of Christa-Maria. She is an actress and an artist who, like Jerska, is confronted with the possibility of ceasing to be an artist.

The decision which she has to make; whether to betray her lover or cease to be an actress is a tragic choice. Either she has to forsake her ethical beliefs and betray her feelings or abandon art. In both cases she loses a significant portion of that which makes her what she is. In her case the Auschwitz of the soul is most vivid. Totalitarian regime’s goal, as Hannah Arendt writes, is to reduce human beings to their basic biological impluses and needs; to be controlled entirely, stripped of their essence as social beings and ther intimate self which constitues them. The horror of destroying one’s soul draws us back to Kirchner’s painting which shows desolate landscape which is intense and horrifying. Life in totalitarian regimes is pure zoe, life stripped to bare life. The Lives of Others‘s Sonata for a Good Man is similar to the comforting vision a child sees in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. It is a welcome illusion brought to life which tries to ease us with the belief in our fundamental goodness, but, witnessing the horrors of the life eliminated one may ask oneself together with Theodor Adorno, is poetry even possible after Auschwitz.

 

References:

Jens Gieseke, The History of the Staasi, East Germany’s Secret Police, 1945-1990, Berghahn Books, Potsdam, 2014

 

Mean Streets (1973) “Benevolence Is Akin to A Flame”

Mean Streets is one of Martin Scorsese’s early pictures and a very personal one. As it is well-known, he wanted to become a Catholic priest and grew up in Manhattan, in Little Italy, a famous New York neighbourhood. He later reminisced that it was like a “Sicilian village”. The film follows Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro), a psychotic young man aspiring to become a respected mob member. De Niro plays the part with virtuosity (he was 30 at the time) that anticipates his later tour de force performances in Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. Mean Streets is not just a milestone in Martin Scorsese’s brilliant career, it may very well be one of his finest pictures. The film deeply influenced Wong Kar-Wai’s first movie As Tears Go By.

De Niro’s genius is openly manifested in the portrayal of his character’s erratic behaviour and is an antipode of Harvey Keitel’s character Charlie, who is calm, rational and does not succumb to desires easily. A shot in which Johnny Boy shoots in the air trying to shoot the lights on the Empire State Building is a synechdoche that points to the type of character Johnny Boy is. His ravaging irrationality puts him at odds with men he cannot control, as he cannot control himself.

He does not care for family bonds, religion, or anything whatsoever that does not bring him pleasure. He has no fear at all, a characteristic that Aristotle defined as immoderate folliness. On the other hand, for Charlie, family and religion are important, and that, paradoxically, puts him in an impossible position of trying to save a man, whose head is deep under the water, from drowning. Shots of fire are often shown in the movie and its symbolism is twofold. On one hand, fire represents temptations that can lead to divine punishment of suffering in hell; on the other – madness. Fire, along with water is an element that is commonly associated with madness (for connections between symbolism of water regarding to madness, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Nostalgia is a perfect example).

Bob Dylan’s song Joey, originally from the album Desire can be beautifully juxtaposed to the world of Mean Streets.

 

The world of Mean Streets can also be compared to the novels of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, most particularly his The Idiot. Prince Myshkin has epilepsy, as does Teresa; Charlie can be compared to Prince Myshkin, a naïve man who is trying to “save” his erratic and murderous friend Rogozhin; Johnny Boy is a version of the latter. The Idiot ends with main characters either succumbing to madness or ending up in Syberia, and Mean Streets does not end on a much lighter note as well. On the other hand, music in the film (e.g. the Rolling Stones) gives the grave matters it discusses a tone of playfullness; lighthearted humour, bar fights and improvized scenes, ultimately bring the viewer enjoyment.

 

Vigorous line:

Nobody tries anymore… Just tries to help, that’s all, to help people.

Francis of Assisi had it all down.

Charlie

El Greco, St. Francis’s Vision of the Flaming Torch

Note: Martin Scorsese uses El Greco’s Christ in his latest film Silence

Francis of Assisi was born an Italian as Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone. He was a founder of the Franciscan order; in 1219 he went to Egypt to convert a sultan to put an end to a conflict. In the country chapel of San Damiano, the Icon of Crucified Christ spoke to him with words “Francis, Francis, go and repair My house which, as you can see, is falling into ruins.” Keeping in mind these anecdotes, we can perceive the appeal St. Francis had to Charlie. In the opening captions we can see Charlie shaking hands with a Catholic priest and at the beginning of the film he says: “You don’t make up for your sins in church. You do it in the streets. You do it at home.” During the film there are numerous voice-overs of Charlie’s introspections from which we can learn much about his character, religiosity and social views.

He is a ridiculed figure at times because of his devotion to Catholicism; his constant aim during the film is to save others from themselves. At the end of the film, he lies and makes up a story about himself to “save” a Jewish woman from the life of prostitution. On the other hand, during the dialogue by the sea, Teresa tells him that everyone must take care of himself (a Nietzschean worldview). Their moral stances are in a constrast, and we can see internal tensions in Charlie’s character as well. He tries to live up to the appearances that he thinks must be upheld, but at the same time follows his principles.

 In a way Mean Streets is a morality tale. It would be much different if in the end Charlie pays  the ultimate price, but it seems that Scorsese wanted to praise Charlie’s way of living not as a naïve one, but heroic and worthy. We can ponder if his devotion to family and helping Johnny Boy is of any use at all and that precisely is Scorsese’s brilliance. Mean Streets is a film open to interpretations, moral discussions and at the same time serves as entertainment. Its twofold characteristic – it brings both enjoyjment and material for reflection – makes it a brilliant piece of art.

Hrvoje Galić