Finally saw The Lives of Others a couple weeks back. It’s good, although not in the same class as Pan’s Labyrinth, and it most certainly didn’t deserve to beat the latter for the Best Foreign Language Oscar. The reviews I’ve read have ignored some pretty serious problems. When I got out of the movie, the first comparison that came to mind was American Beauty. The first time I saw AB I loved it; it was funny, smart, and well-acted. The second time I saw it I liked it a lot less, because it became apparent how badly the script treated Annette Bening’s character. There were plenty of things wrong with the Spacey-Benning marriage, and while Bening was responsible for some of the problems, Spacey’s character obviously deserved much of the blame. Spacey’s efforts to escape were treated as light-hearted fancy, while Bening’s were portrayed in a much darker light. There’s nothing wrong with using characters as props; this is what minor characters are for, after all. Treating Bening as a prop, though, would have been an improvement. Instead, we were given just enough insight into her character to dislike her and hold her responsible for the collapse of the marriage and for Spacey’s unhappiness, yet not quite enough to empathize with her position in the marriage.
I felt much the same way about Christa in The Lives of Others. She’s more than a prop, but she’s treated so unfairly by the script that the film suffers. Christa is asked to sacrifice a lot. First, she’s given a choice between giving up her acting career and enduring what amounts to serial rape. She chooses her career, betraying her boyfriend at the same time. Later, she’s given a choice between informing on her boyfriend and giving up her career. She chooses her career again. Her reward for this is to get hit by a truck. She’s repeatedly compromised; giving in to a Central Committee member, lying to her boyfriend, informing on him, and lying to him again. She is forced to suffer these indignities not because of any political beliefs, but because she is a woman and an actress
Compare this treatment to that of the two main characters. Our hero, the author, is in good with the authorities of the GDR, so good that they need to fabricate evidence against him in order to damage his standing. About halfway through the film, a friend who’s been blacklisted commits suicide; it’s at this point that he notices that the GDR is bad. What sacrifice is he asked to make? What principles does he have to give up? What does he have to endure in order to keep doing the thing that he loves? Nothing, none, and nothing. He undergoes some mild inconvenience, and his girlfriend gets hit by a truck. Our other “hero” is a member of the Stasi. He presumably likes torturing people and certainly enjoys taking apart people’s lives at the behest of the state. He listens to some music and realizes that the GDR is bad. What sacrifice is he asked to make? Like Christa, he’s offered a trade between what he loves to do and obedience to the state. Unlike Christa, he sacrifices his job for his principles. Since, however, his job was to torture and spy on people, I can’t feel a terrible lot of sympathy for him.
To recap, Sebastian (the author) is asked for no sacrifice and makes none. Gerd, the spy, gives up his job as a spy. Christa, on the other hand, is raped, forced to betray her boyfriend repeatedly, and run over by a truck. Now, maybe if a Central Committee member had offered Sebastian a trade of sex for protection he would have refused, and given up his art. We don’t know, because he was never forced to make the choice. Maybe, if he’d been asked to report on his friends at cost of his art, he would have refused, but again we don’t know because he was never forced to make the choice. We’re allowed to revel in the heroism of both Gerd and Sebastian in standing up the machine, but when the bill comes due, Christa has to pay. Moroever, she doesn’t even get the luxury of sacrificing herself for political principle; the state targets her because a Central Committee member wants to sleep with her. In the end, she’s just a dead informer who was willing to have sex with a party member in order to keep her job.
The ending exacerbated the problem. While another director might have left unmentioned the impending collapse of the GDR, Donnersmarck decided to focus on it. Unfortunately, it serves to remind that, even if Sebastian or Gerd had been punished for holding to principle, the punishment would only have stuck for four years. Indeed, Gerd’s punishment is to work in the Stasi mailroom between 1985 and 1989. Christa, however, remains dead. She pays for their sins, and not willingly. The end of the film, though, make clear that it was a movie about Gerd and Sebastian’s reconciling with one another and with the state, and not a film about Christa. Yet, she bears virtually all of the weight of the film. Frankly, when I left the theater, I felt I’d been a bit cheated.