“Gertrud” - Carl Dreyer (1964)

Carl Th. Dreyer’s last film, Gertrud (1964), is a difficult-to-classify work that has drawn a wide range of critical responses.  Made when the director was seventy-five years old, the work was initially widely criticized for its slow-moving, almost static, tempo and technique when it was released, and it proved to be a commercial disaster [1].  Later on, though, the film began to attract a devoted following [2,3], and in fact some noted reviewers, such as David Bordwell, who had early on panned the film, later reversed themselves [4]. By 2012 the British Film Institute’s two published rankings of all-time greatest films, as voted on by wide-ranging lists of international  film critics and film directors, had Gertrud ranked 43rd and 59th, respectively [5,6].  Even so, there has never been a consensus about the film, both in terms of its aesthetic value and its intended message.

The film’s story is based on a 1906 stage play of the same name by Swedish playwright Hjalmar Söderberg about an upper-class woman who seeks her own romantic fulfillment.  Although Dreyer made some changes to Söderberg’s work and relocated the setting to Denmark, the story still maintains the same cultural milieu of that period and so has drawn some comparisons to Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House (1879). 

So some critics have judged Gertrud to have a fundamentally feminist theme and see the lead character, Gertrud, as being a forerunner feminist heroine [7].  Others found Gertrud to be so maniacally self-centered that they considered her to be a sadistic witch [8].  Still others have found the static staging of the story to be so absurd that the whole thing should be looked on as a comedy [9].  Following a different tangent, Jonathon Rosenbaum felt that the film reflected the lifelong traumas and concerns of Dreyer, himself [10,11]. 

From my own perspective Gertrud is less about women’s place in society and instead more about an even more fundamental issue – love and the various ways people may approach it.  In this connection it is interesting to consider Rosenbaum’s incorporation of thoughts about early 20th-century psychoanalysis [11] (which is explicitly referenced in the film as a contemporary revolutionary intellectual movement), and I will discuss them further below.

The story of Gertrud concerns, almost exclusively, five principal characters, all of whom are accomplished figures from upscale Danish society – Gertrud and the four men with whom she has personal relationships:
  • Gertrud (played by Nina Pens Rode) is an attractive former opera singer who is married  to Gustav Kanning.
  • Gabriel Lidman (played by Ebbe Rode, who was the real-life husband of Nina Pens Rode) is a prominent Danish poet who has returned to Denmark from abroad in order to receive an award for his poetry on the event of his fiftieth birthday.  He was Gertrud’s lover prior to her marriage to Gustav Kanning.
  • Gustav Kanning (Bendt Rothe) is a successful lawyer who is about to be appointed to a cabinet position in the Danish government.
  • Erland Jansson (Baard Owe) is a brilliant young pianist and composer who is currently having an affair with Gertrud.
  • Axel Nygren (Axel Strøbye) is a prominent physician and intellectual who now resides in Paris but who has returned to Copenhagen for the occasion of Gabriel Lidman’s award ceremony.
The story is told not in a realistic dramatic fashion (nor is it an example of either theatrical German kammerspiel or German Expressionism, which has sometimes been suggested), but is instead a presentation of lengthy artificial conversations that are delivered in rhetorical fashion. Many of these are presented in long shots lasting five or more minutes.  Often Gertrud’s face is artificially highlighted, while her male counterpart’s face is shrouded in shadows.  The two interlocutors in the conversation often do not face each other, but instead seem to be rhetorically looking away and speaking to themselves – as if they are self-exploring their own thoughts on the topic.  

This introverted and reflective style of presentation is what drives many viewers mad.  The first time I saw the film, the audience openly jeered the film during the presentation – just like when the film was first shown in Paris.  On the other hand, this very style of presentation has its fascinating side, too, and this is sometimes sensed only after repeated viewings (as was the case for me). 

The narrative of Gertrud can be broken down into seven parts, most of which consist of extended conversations between Gertrud and one of the four men.

1.  Gustav and Gertrud
Gustav and Gertrud have a lengthy conversation at home about their troubled relationship.  Gustav first tells her that they are to attend a banquet the next night celebrating the poet Gabriel Lidman, where Gustav is to give a speech.  But there are other things on Gustav’s mind.  After having his attempted kiss spurned, he complains to her that the door to her room has been locked to him for more than a month. Then their conversation is interrupted by a visit from Gustav’s mother. After the mother departs, Gertrud informs Gustav that she is leaving him and is in love with another man.  She says she rejects Gustav for his lukewarm attitude toward love, his prioritized preference of his professional life, and his relegation of his wife to a minor domestic roll.  She tells him,
“I must come before everything.  I don’t want to be an occasional plaything.”
She then tells him that she is going out alone to the opera that evening.

2.  Gertrud and Erland
Gertrud meets Erland by a pond in the park, and they vow their mutual affection for each other.  She tells Erland that she is free now.  At her request they then go to his flat, where she poetically tells him that “life is a long, long chain of dreams”.  They then retire to the bedroom to make love for the first time.

Meanwhile Gustav, missing Gertrud, goes to see her at the opera and learns that she never went there to attend it.

Back with Gertrud and Erland after their lovemaking, Gertrud asks him not to go to a party at the dwelling of a courtesan named Constance that he had said he had been invited to that evening by some of his male friends.

3.  The Banquet for Gabriel Lidman
At the celebratory banquet for Gabriel Lidman, Gabriel is touted as the “great poet of love”.  But in his acceptance speech, Gabriel says there are actually two important things in the world: love and thought. Then Gustav gives his own speech honoring Gabriel, during which Gertrud becomes ill and must retire to a side chamber.  There she is attended to by Professor Axel Nygren, and they renew their old friendship.  After Axel leaves, Gustav enters the room and tells Gertrud that he knows she wasn’t at the opera the previous night (we know she was with Erland).  Then Gustav is summoned out of the room to speak to the Vice Chancellor hosting his event, and Gabriel comes in to the room to speak to her.

4.  Gabriel and Gertrud
Much of this scene is embodied in a single ten-minute shot of Gabriel and Gertrud speaking alone to each other.  Gabriel says he is still madly in love with Gertrud and has never gotten over Gertrud having broken off their relationship years earlier. He also agonizingly tells her that he attended a party the previous evening at the home of a woman named Constance, where he heard Erland Jansson crudely boasting about his latest romantic conquest, Gertrud.  Gertrud is unmoved by Gabriel’s suffering and coldly tells him that she still loves Erland anyway.  At this, Gabriel cries and departs the room.

Now Gustav and Erland enter the room and inform Gertrud that she has been asked to sing an aria for the Vice Chancellor.  She agrees, but in the midst of her performance, she faints to the floor and appears to pass out.

5.  Gertrud and Erland again
Gertrud again meets Erland by the pond in the park and pleads with him ( in a five-minute shot) to run away with her.  Evidently despite Erland’s crude boasting about his conquest of her, she is still madly in love with him.  Erland wants to continue their affair but not commit himself to a total union.  He finally confesses that he can’t run away with Gertrud because he has made another woman pregnant and is committed to that woman.  Gertrud glumly realizes that her affair with Erland is over and tells him that.  Before departing, Erland scoffingly tells Gertrud that she is too proud to have a real love relationship.

6.  Gertrud and Gabriel again
At the Kanning home, Gabriel is visiting and speaking with Gustav.  But Gustav is called out of the room, and again Gabriel and Gertrud have a chance to speak alone together.  Gabriel desperately asks her to run away with him, but again Gertrud demurs.  She quotes a line from one of his poems that was apparently his creed:
“I believe in the pleasure of the flesh and the irreparable loneliness of the soul.”
And she confesses that her marriage to Gustav was merely an entry into the pleasures of the flesh after the failure of her love affair with Gabriel.  Then she relates to Gabriel, by means of an extended flashback, the story of how she came to give up on her love for him.  In the flashback, which is presented in overexposed lighting to highlight its imagined recollection, Gertrud comes to Gabriel’s flat while he is away and lovingly begins tidying up.  This tidying scene lasts 2:20 and slowly embeds the viewer into Gertrud’s loving mood.  Still in the flashback, she notices a scrap of paper on his desk on which he had written,
“a woman’s love and a man’s work are mortal enemies.” 
This made her realize that Gabriel could never devote himself totally to love, and it was the moment for her when their relationship was finished.  After telling Gabriel about this past moment, he still begs her to run away with him, but she tells him that they cannot now resurrect something that is dead.   She goes out to the kitchen and phones Professor Nygren to tell him she will be coming to Paris to join his group at the Sorbonne to study the new field of psychoanalysis. 

Gustav now returns to the room and reports that he has accepted the governmental cabinet position.  However, Gertrud reminds him in front of Gabriel that their marriage is finished and his appointment is meaningless to her.  After Gabriel sadly departs, Gustav begs Gertrud to remain with him and that he will even tolerate her having an extra-marital affair.  However, after Gertrud tells Gustav that she never really loved him, he orders her to get out.

7.  30-40 years later
In a coda that Dreyer appended to Söderberg’s original play, Gertrud is seen some 30-40 years later living alone.  She is visited on her birthday by Axel Nygren, and they exchange cordial greetings, with Axel giving her a copy of his latest academic book.  He courteously chides her for not answering all his letters, and asks with a smile, “so do you still care about me a little?”  She assures him that she does, and they reminisce about their longtime friendship since those days in Paris – “a friendship that never turned to love”, Axel remarks, pointedly. Most critics consider their relationship to have been passionless, but Axel’s remarks suggest to me that he may have wished it to be otherwise.

Gertrud, though, is now thinking of her final days.  Not wanting to have her private things examined by other people after her death, she returns to Axel all the letters he had sent to her, which he promptly burns in the fireplace.  He asks her if she has ever thought of writing poetry, and she proceeds to recite her only poem, which she had written at the age of sixteen:

                Just look at me.
                Am I beautiful?
                No, but I have loved.

                Just look at me.
                Am I young?
                No, but I have loved.

                Just look at me.
                Do I live?
                No, but I have loved.

And she tells him that she has made arrangements for her tombstone epitaph to read only “Amor  Omnia” (which means “love is all”). 

Then Axel politely makes his departure.  She watches him go and then disappears behind her closing door as the film ends.

My reaction to Gertrud the first time I saw the film, like that of a number of critics, was that the main character was too demanding and obsessed with her own emotional needs.  Her overreaching demands cut herself off from full engagement with life, which we know is inevitably a compromise for everyone.   But after watching the film again, I can feel more sympathy and appreciation for Gertrud, perhaps because I have known some people quite like her and who were devoted to love.  And the male characters around Gertrud are not so artificial as they first might appear.  All four are realistic and recognizable types.
  • Gustav Kanning did place his career interests ahead of his domestic concerns, but he did also seem to love Gertrud, too.  In the end, he is even willing to accept a humiliating arrangement as a cuckold just so he can continue to be part of her life.
  • Gabriel Lidman loves Gertrud passionately, and his fault was not placing his career ahead of Gertrud, but merely placing it on an equal footing with his relationship with her.  Gertrud,  however, demanded total submission to love.  In the end, he, too, seems to be willing to give in to her demands, but she has lost her feelings for him.
  • Erland Jansson loves Gertrud, but there are limits.  He is already committed to another woman he has made pregnant.  He is a rational modernist trying to balance things in the world.  When Gertrud asks him if he believes in God, he answers, perhaps echoing Dreyer's own view, “I don’t know; there must be a higher spirit, somewhere, otherwise so many things are inexplicable.”
  • Axel Nygren is cautious and polite, but it seems to me he wished to have a romantic relationship with Gertrud, too. His deferential demeanor masked a hidden ardor that never came to flower.
And what about Gertrud, herself?  How does she contrast with these four types of amorous comportment?  Jonathon Rosenbaum, seeing an influence on Dreyer from early 20th-century psychoanalysis studies, has cast the difference between Gertrud and her men as representative of a fundamental gender difference – a difference between narrative and image [11].  Men, according to this view, are driven by narratives, while women are captured by image.  This is an interesting suggestion, but I consider it to be overly Procrustean. 

I would say that Gertrud is not like Goethe’s Faust or Sartre’s Anny (in Nausea), perpetually waiting for that perfect moment and hoping to fixate on it.  Gertrud is just as dedicated to the dynamics of narrative as the men were and not just focused on the static image.  Moreover, Gertrud is not a hedonist like Kierkegaard’s “A” expositor in Either/Or, merely seeking an endless “rotation” of momentary hedonistic pleasures.  No, she is someone seeking the truly immersive romantic narrative.  This is evidenced in her two recollections shown in overexposed flashback, where she is shown fully engaged in her loving mode of being.  Like all narratives, these are dynamic, not static. 

What distinguishes Gertrud from her men is that her narratives are more open-ended and intensely guided by her passion for “the other”, her loved one (“life is a long, long chain of dreams”, she said).  In fact she is so focused on her romantic narrative that she shows no compassion when she is out of love for someone, even when that person is still in love with her.  This is her failing.  Her intense willingness to give all of herself to her beloved is accompanied by a narcissistic demand to receive the same from her beloved.  Love needs to be immersed in the give-and-take of life in order to be able to offer its gifts and to realize its potential.  Gertrud was unwilling to do that.

And yet I can understand Gertrud’s feelings and have known loving people like her.  In fact to some degree I see a little bit of myself in all the characters in this story – the four men and Gertrud, too.  Perhaps some of you will feel the same way, as well.

  1. “Screen: A Dreyer Film: New Yorker Presents Danc's 'Gertrud'”, The New York Times, (3 June 1966).   
  2. Martin Bradley, “Gertrud (1964): Danish master filmmaker Carl Theodor Dreyer's final film”, A Potpourri of Vestiges, (April 2013).   
  3. Diane Christian and Bruce Jackson (eds.), "Carl Theodor Dreyer GERTRUD (1964, 119 min)", Goldenrod Handouts, Buffalo Film Seminars, (XIX:9), The Center for Studies in American Culture, State University of New York, Buffalo, NY, (27 October 2009).
  4. David Bordwell, “Dreyer Re-reconsidered”, David Bordwell’s Website on Cinema, (14 June  2010).  
  5. “Critics’ Top 100", Analysis: The Greatest Films of All Time 2012, Sight and Sound, British Film Institute, (2012).
  6. “Directors’ Top 100", Analysis: The Greatest Films of All Time 2012, Sight and Sound, British Film Institute, (2012). 
  7. Emilia van Hauen, “… But Am I Loved?”, Carl Th. Dreyer, (23 May 2010).   
  8. Dennis Delrogh, “Can Witches Suffer Too?”, The Village Voice(16 December 1974).   
  9. Phillip Lopate, “Gertrud”, The Criterion Collection, (20 August 2001).  
  10. Jonathon Rosenbaum, “Watch with Mother”, The Guardian, (30 May 2003).  
  11. Jonathon Rosbenbaum, “Gertrud as Nonnarrative: The Desire for the Image”, Jonathon Rosenbaum, (7 January 1986).        

Charlie Chaplin

Films of Charlie Chaplin:

“City Lights” - Charlie Chaplin (1931)

Charlie Chaplin, perhaps the greatest movie star ever, was an inimitable film artist who went his own way and single-handedly fashioned his brilliant career.  Looking at his greatest work, City Lights (1931), offers one the opportunity not only to see a fine film, but also to get some insight into Chaplin’s creative genius. 

Chaplin’s own life is a fascinating story in its own right.  Born in 1889 in London into extreme poverty, Chaplin was practically an orphan – his father was always away and his struggling mother couldn’t make ends meet and was eventually sent to a mental institution when Charlie was 14.  His formal schooling, which had always been minimal, ended permanently at the age of 13 when he dropped out to seek employment in music hall and stage performing.  He managed to work with a company that toured the American vaudeville circuit and eventually wound up acting in American silent-film comedies in 1914.  He was such an immediate success that by 1917 he was a multimillionaire and one of the highest paid people in the world [1]. He soon took an interest in all phases of film production, and by 1922 was moving from one- and two-reelers to feature-length film production.  By this time Chaplin was the ultimate auteur: not only starring as the lead actor, but also writing the stories and producing, directing, and editing the films, too. Since he was enormously wealthy and his own producer, Chaplin could be a perfectionist and take however long he wanted to finish his productions [2,3].  This made him difficult to work with, but he had the ultimate response to any objections – his films were almost invariably successful.

In 1928 Chaplin began working on the story for his masterpiece, City Lights.  Although the first sound film, The Jazz Singer (1927), had been released the year before and the movie industry felt that silent films were doomed, Chaplin felt that the bulkiness of sound production equipment and procedures was too limiting for his kind of expression.  So he persisted with the idea of making a silent film. For this work he was the producer, director, lead actor, script writer, film editor, and music composer (the music was orchestrated by Arthur Johnston and Alfred Newman and incorporated a theme by José Padilla).  And, of course, by this time Chaplin was even more of a perfectionist than ever, reshooting many scenes over and over to get just what he was looking for – the shooting ratio was an extravagant 38:1. Things took so long that by the time the perfectionist Chaplin finished and released City Lights in 1931, silent films were clearly a phenomenon of the past.  Nevertheless, Chaplin’s artistry was so effective that the film was his greatest hit at the box office.

Actually, City Lights is not truly a silent film.  It has no (intelligible) spoken dialogue, but it does have a synchronous sound track to convey diegetic noises and contextually-appropriate music.  There are a few textual intertitles, but the film effectively conveys its narrative content by means of gestures and facial expressions.  (For a latter-day retake on some of the themes and methods of City Lights, I refer the curious to check out the more recent Indian film, Pushpak (1987)).

There are a couple of key aspects to Chaplin’s work that are first worth considering.  One concerns the nature of comedy, itself.  Many times comedies are just a disconnected string a jokes.  Admittedly, the jokes are usually presented within a particular setting and context, but the jokes are still mostly insular.  Chaplin’s comedies tended to feature longer narrative threads, and this is what makes them hold up over the longer length of a feature film.

Another key aspect to Chaplin’s work was the nature of the character that up to this point he almost invariably played: the Tramp.  Chaplin’s Tramp character was an odd mixture of British and American funkiness, with his disheveled waistcoat, bowler hat, and cane serving to bedeck essentially a bum.  This character, though, had several attributes that were essential to what made him interesting [4]:
  • In search of dignity
    Despite his rumpled appearance, the Tramp is always concerned about his dignity and whether he is being shown proper respect.  This we might think of as more of a British theme than an American one.  I have remarked elsewhere on the subject of dignity and why I believe it is seriously incorrect to think of dignity as a basic human right [5].  But dignity can still be important to the individual in terms of how he or she sees him or herself.  It is basically a personal matter, but Chaplin’s character effectively externalizes his concerns about dignity when he feels he is subject to smirking mockery by people around him.

  • Cheekiness
    At the same time and in the reverse direction, the Tramp has all the impudence of a naughty boy.  This serves to ruffle the feathers of those who look down at him, and it suggests to me more of an American theme of wiseacre-ness.

  • Pathos and sympathy
    The Tramp suffers many indignities, but he shyly suffers empathetically for others, too. He often wants to help but lacks the means to do so. This is what makes him a sympathetic character.
City Lights concerns narrative threads that bring out these features of the Tramp character.  A major theme in the film is seeing – seeing the true nature of people and the world.  Sometimes people look, but they don’t see.  The story is presented in nine 8-to-10-minute segments, and this typical length may have been influenced by Chaplin’s earlier experience with one- and two-reeler films, since the average length of a 35mm film reel was about 11 minutes.  The overall pacing and tempo is fast, and yet there are a number of lengthy shots in the film.  These shots are full of action and had to be carefully choreographed, a requirement which must have been a major contributor to the number of scene re-shoots and the high shooting ratio.

1.  Introducing the Tramp
In the first segment, the viewer is introduced to the Tramp (Chaplin) and his perilous but casual life on the street.  He is shown taking a nap on a statue that is about to be unveiled in a pompous civic ceremony, and later (in an 83-second shot) he unknowingly dances around a sidewalk elevator while he gazes at a nude statue in a store window.  Later he happens onto a pretty “Girl” (Virginia Cherrill) selling flowers on the street.  When he notices the Girl is blind, he can’t help but use one of his last coins to buy a boutonniere from her. In these brief scenes we see the major elements of the Tramp’s character – cheekiness, quest for dignity, and empathy.

2.  Dockside Encounter
In the evening when the Tramp is about to sleep on a bench by the river, he notices a well-dressed man – the “Millionaire” (Harry Myers) – about to drown himself in the river.  The Tramp stops him from doing so and when the Millionaire comes to his senses, he declares the Tramp to be “his friend for life”.  He takes the Tramp to his wealthy home, where the two of them proceed to get drunk on whiskey.  This includes a 100-second shot of the two of them sharing (and spilling) their drinks.   After a second suicide attempt is also blocked by the Tramp, the Millionaire, now deciding to live life to the fullest, insists that the two of them go out for a night on the town.

3.  The Nightclub
The third sequence features various slapstick scenes at a posh nightclub.  This includes famous cigar-lighting (53 seconds) and spaghetti-eating (60-second) shots that are frivolous but amusing.

4.  Returning Home
On the way back to the Millionaire’s home in the rich man’s Rolls Royce, the Tramp notices the Girl selling large flower bouquets.  He borrows $10 (worth $150 today) from his friend and returns to the girl in the Rolls Royce to take her home.  To the blind Girl, the Tramp seems to be a wealthy and courtly gentleman, not a tramp.  Back at the mansion, though, the now-sober Millionaire doesn’t remember his life-saving encounter with the Tramp, and has him thrown out on the street.

5.  Afternoon
The Tramp is back on the street and again penniless.  But he runs into the Millionaire, who is once again inebriated and can again recognize and remember his “lifelong friend”.  The Tramp is invited to a party at the Millionaire’s home, and again there are more hijinks involving the Tramp’s accidental swallowing of a whistle with disruptive consequences.  In the morning and the return of sobriety, the Millionaire, who is about to leave on a trip to Europe, again cannot remember anything about the Tramp, who is once more thrown out of the home and back on the street.

6.  Helping the Girl
So far, more than halfway through the film, the story has mostly been a string of well-crafted visual jokes triggered by the back-and-forth relationship between the Millionaire and the Tramp.  Now things shift in the Girl’s direction.  The Girl is ill with fever.  In order to help her, the Tramp gets a job as a lowly street cleaner.  During his lunch breaks, he visits the Girl, masquerading, verbally, as a wealthy gentleman.  On one such visit he reads to the girl a news item about a Viennese doctor who can cure blindness.  He promises to send her their for the operation.  Since the Grandmother (Florence Lee) is always away during these visits, there is noone to tell the Girl that her visitor is a lowly tramp. Just when the Tramp learns that she and her Grandmother are about to be thrown out of their flat due to unpaid rent, he gets fired from his street-cleaning job.  So the Tramp is now desperate to help her.

7.  The Boxing Match
By serendipity, the Tramp gets lured into a boxing match, the earnings from which could save the Girl’s apartment.  This is a famous 14-minute scene with a number of twists and turns and extended boxing-match shots, all choreographed to perfection.  Despite impossible odds, the Tramp almost pulls things off, but in the end he is back penniless on the street.

8.  The Millionaire Returns
On the street the Tramp runs into the Millionaire who is back from Europe and again inebriated.  The Millionaire takes the Tramp home and willingly gives him $1,000 to help the girl.  However, thieves hiding in the Millionaire’s home interrupt everything, knocking out the Millionaire in the process.  Though the thieves are routed, the arriving police think the Tramp stole the Millionaire’s money.  When the Millionaire regains consciousness, of course he doesn’t recognize the Tramp (he never does when he’s sober).  But the Tramp manages to flee with the $1,000 cash and gallantly deliver it all to the Girl.  When she asks when she can meet him again, the Tramp resignedly says it will be awhile.  Shortly thereafter the Tramp is cuffed by the police and sentenced to prison.

9.  9 Months Later

9 months later we see that the Girl’s sight has been restored, and she is now running a posh flower shop with the Grandmother.  The Tramp is released from prison, but he looks more tattered than ever and doesn’t know anything about the girl.  He gets into a scuffle with some delinquent boys with pea-shooters in front of her shop, and the now-sighted Girl looks on from her store window with amusement.  The Tramp is stunned to see her and joyfully speechless.  When the Girl condescendingly offers him a coin, he refuses, so she insists and puts it into his hand.  Of course she doesn’t recognize his face, but she does recognize the touch, and she now knows that it is her mysterious benefactor. But this disheveled derelict before her is not the polished gentleman she had imagined him to be. The emotional look on her face, and the return look on the Tramp’s face, is one of the most moving closings in film history. 

There are two noteworthy elements of Chaplin’s mise-en-scene in City Lights that make the kind of story-telling in which he is engaged particularly effective:
  • Music 
    Although there is no spoken dialogue, sound is especially important in this film, because it used to convey characteristic leitmotifs associated with the principal characters.  These leitmotifs drive and energize the visually presented segments, and so they sustain the dynamic tempo of the film.
  • Eyes 
    Since seeing the true nature of things is an important theme of this dialogue-less film, Chaplin’s focus on the eyes and facial expressions is crucial to the presentation.  The Tramp’s eyes and eyebrows are characteristically highlighted with makeup to emphasize his innocence.  His is not a blank stare, but instead often a look of openness.  The sightless Girl’s visage is always searchingly directed outward.  She, too, is a perceiver.  And look, too, at the facial expressions of some of the other important characters, such as the mercurial Millionaire and the Tramp’s ruthless boxing-match opponent.
But it is that closing scene of the Tramp and the Girl coming together that makes City Lights the classic that it is – even though that scene has been the subject of varied interpretations [6].  Does the girl’s final look of compassion represent sad resignation to the realities of this world? Or does it represent a sense of recognition to the realities of what love really means?  And the Tramp’s final look is one of apprehension and hopeful expectation.  You have to see it for yourself.

  1. David Robinson Chaplin: His Life and Art, Paladin, (1985).
  2. Gary Giddins, City Lights: The Immortal Tramp”, The Criterion Collection, 11 November 2013).  
  3. Alan Vanneman, “Looking at Charlie: City Lights: An Occasional Series on the Life and Work of Charlie Chaplin”, Bright Lights Film Journal, (31 January 2009).
  4. Roger Ebert, “City Lights”, RogerEbert.com, (21 December 1997).  
  5. I have commented elsewhere about the pseudo human “right” of dignity.  See for example my reviews of  The Last Command (1928), Bicycle Thieves (1948), and Tangsir (1974).
  6. Marilyn Ferdinand, “City Lights (1931)”, Ferdy on Films, (2012).  

“Les Enfants Terribles” - Jean-Pierre Melville (1950)

Jean-Pierre Melville’s second feature film, Les Enfants Terribles (1950), came well before his dazzling string of films noir that established him as that genre’s consummate master.  In addition, despite Melville’s consciously developed auteur status, this film’s auteurship is often principally credited to co-scriptwriter Jean Cocteau.  Perhaps because of these considerations, Les Enfants Terribles is often set aside from Melville’s other work and not listed as one of his masterpieces.  This I think is a mistake, and I believe the critical arguments concerning over who was the major contributor and whether this film was specifically an early herald of the French New Wave are only distracting [1].  Of course it is natural to attribute principal authorship to Cocteau, since the film’s story is based on his sensational novel, Les Enfants Terribles (1929), that was a landmark for the early 20th century French avant-garde. But Melville’s unique stylistic contributions were undoubtedly crucial to the film’s entrancing appeal [2]. 

Cocteau, whose work spanned a range of arts including writing, design, art, and filmmaking, was a superstar in French culture.  He seemed to have had close relations with all the major cultural figures during the first half of the 20th century [3].  And his flamboyant lifestyle added to his already considerable notoriety.  Evidently after seeing Melville’s first feature film, Le Silence de la Mer (1949), Cocteau decided to invite Melville to make a film out of his own famous novel rather than direct the work, himself.  It was a good decision.  Melville’s moody, expressionistic mise-en-scene blended well with Cocteau’s more abstract and outrageous declarations in his story.

The subject matter of Les Enfants Terribles concerns two young Parisian siblings who live alone and have mostly withdrawn from the world around them into their own private dreamworld. Some people may dismiss the whole tale as a depiction of two narcissistic misfits whose self-obsessions  are unworthy of our attention.  But there are aspects of this story and the way it is presented that have wider connotations and perspectives; and they draw us in.

For one thing, the story concerns how people, but especially young people, form their understandings of themselves by imagining the roles they might play in social narratives.  The principal character, Elisabeth, wants to embed herself in fantastic, self-constructed dramatic narratives in which she is a major protagonist.  Her constant collaborator in these little psychodramas is her younger brother, Paul.  So Elisabeth and Paul prefer their dramatic pseudo-narratives over the humdrum narratives of the external world, because they offer them more dramatic roles to play.

The problem is that when people fabricate narratives, they do so because they are insecure about exposing their inner selves to the outside world.  In their fantasy worlds, they are safer.  But even in those worlds, they need ways to melodramatize their stories in order to make things interesting.  In this respect there are two main emotional directions:
  • Love – this can be expressed when one is open and unguarded, when one is willing to expose one’s inner self.  But this can only be expressed if the feeling is not a forbidden love, i.e. a love that is not acceptable to the society at large.
  • Hate – this can be expressed by the fearful and guarded. 
Both Elisabeth and Paul have forbidden loves, and so they confine their mini-stories, which they call instances of “the game”, to those of resentment and hate.

In truth, the feeling of love is a new and astonishing emotion for all young people, and they probably experience the feeling of forbidden loves much more often than our public society is willing to acknowledge.  In Les Enfants Terribles, there are five principal characters, and they all have feelings of love that they are reluctant to express.
  • Elisabeth (played by Nicole Stéphane) is the older sibling.  She has an incestuous passion for her younger brother, Paul.
  • Paul (Edouard Dermithe), Elisabeth’s brother, has a homosexual passion for his schoolmate Dargelos.
  • Dargelos (Renée Cosima), Paul’s androgynous and ruthless friend, may have unexpressed feelings for Paul.
  • Agathe (Renée Cosima), Elisabeth’s friend, has a secret passion for Paul.
  • Gerard (Jacques Bernard) has an unexpressed love for Elisabeth.
Forbidden love was a subject very much on the table for the makers of this film, too.  Cocteau was a flamboyant bisexual: Dargelos was the name of one of Cocteau’s boyhood passions, and the name frequently appears in Cocteau’s works.  Edouard Dermithe was Cocteau’s lover at the time of this film’s making [1].  Nicole Stéphane had affairs with women. And Melville always had an ambiguous profile in this area, as well.

The story of Les Enfants Terribles moves through thee major acts.

1.  Elisabeth, Paul, and Gerard
In the opening scene, there is a schoolyard snowball fight in which Paul is seriously injured by a snowball thrown at him by Dargelos.  Paul’s friend Gerard takes him home to his apartment, where his sister Elisabeth is angry to learn that she now has to look after both Paul and their ill mother.  A doctor arrives and after diagnosing Paul with a weak heart, orders him to stay home from school for the time being.  That is fine with Elisabeth, because her main interest is to play “the game”, their fantasy dramas in which the two siblings express feigned resentment towards each other.  They call this “getting lost” in the game.  They also like to collect and keep in their “treasure chest” some weird, useless artifacts that have meaning only for their pseudo-narrative contexts. Watching them eagerly in all this is the solicitous Gerard, who is usually dismissed or scorned by Elisabeth but is still sometimes a prop in their games.

During one of their rowdy dramas, Paul and Elisabeth happen to run into their sick mother’s room and discover that she has just passed away.  Their mother’s death doesn’t evoke much emotion from the two of them, and it seems to be just another narrative event to add color to their lives.

Incidentally, the doctor, along with all the other adults in this story, represents good-tempered responsibility and support.  These are the kind of people who comfortably fit in well with the existing mature social framework. The doctor and Gerard’s obliging rich uncle arrange for them all to take a trip to the seaside.  There the young people engage in more impudent naughtiness for its own sake, like stealing worthless (to them) objects from a local store or antagonizing small children.

When they return to Paris, Elisabeth, now freed from looking after her mother, decides to get a job as a model at a couturier studio.

By this point in the story, it is already evident that Gerard secretly loves Elisabeth, and Elisabeth secretly loves her brother Paul.

2.  Agathe Enters the Picture

At the fashion studio Elisabeth befriends fellow model Agathe and invites the girl to come live in her apartment.  Upon meeting Agathe, Paul is disturbed to see how much the young woman looks like his schoolboy crush, Dargelos – (Melville having achieved this striking resemblance by casting Renée Cosima in both roles).  And so Paul displays hostility towards Agathe. 

Elisabeth’s modeling activities lead her to meet a wealthy young American, Michael (Melvyn Martin).  (The actor Melvyn Martin, by the way, was an American singer, and he composed the music and lyrics for the romantic song he sings to Elisabeth in the film [4].)  In no time at all Michael proposes to and marries Elisabeth, and then he dies in a road accident the day after their wedding.  Again, Elisabeth seems not to be very emotionally moved by the loss of her husband, and is more affected by the sudden dramatic change in her lifestyle and thus her life narrative.  She is now a wealthy widow and owner of an 18-room mansion. 

With rooms to spare, Elisabeth invites Paul, Gerard, and Agathe to come and live together with her in her mansion.  But soon her new wealth has become boring to her.  She confesses to Paul that she finds the freedom of being rich leaving her in an empty void.  She longs for the confinement and involvement of “getting lost” in their gameplay.  That opportunity will soon arise.

3.  Endplay
In the final act everything comes to a head.  Paul reveals to Elisabeth that he has overcome his loss of Dargelos and has fallen in love with Agathe.  Soon Agathe also confides to Elisabeth that she secretly loves Paul, but that he is scornful of her.  Now Elisabeth has a serious problem: her own love for Paul is jeopardized by Agathe, and so too is her life of game playing with Paul.  So she takes action by spreading a series of lies, which are her own desperately contrived pseudo-narratives:
  • She convinces Paul that Agathe actually loves Gerard.
  • She convinces Gerard that Agathe loves him.
  • She then convinces Agathe that Gerard loves her and wants to marry her.
Disturbed by what she has just done, Elisabeth looks at her hands with horror and tries to wash them – reminiscent of the “Out, damned spot” scene from Shakespeare's Macbeth.  But she wants Paul all to herself.

Gerard and Agathe, fooled by Elisabeth’s lies, settle for each other, and they are soon married and off on a honeymoon.  When they return, Gerard reports to Paul that on their trip he ran into Dargelos, who now works for a car company and travels a lot.  Gerard reports further that Dargelos, remembering that he and Paul used to share a fascination with poison, gave some exotic poison he had acquired to Gerard to give to Paul.  Paul, though still grieving over his loss of Agathe, momentarily likes the gift, and Elisabeth adds it to their “treasure chest.”

The viewer can see where this is headed. Elisabeth’s nightmare of Paul’s death soon becomes a reality.  Just before his death and finally knowing the truth of Elisabeth’s wicked machinations, Paul calls his sister a monster.  She tells him simply that she didn’t want to lose him.  And then she offers her final cryptic explanation of her own self-destructiveness:
“I have to make life unbearable, make it sick of me. I have to make the game despise me. . .”

What elevates Les Enfants Terribles above the level of mindless solipsism is the way it explores and reveals, in admittedly exaggerated form, a fundamental problem that we all face: the search for authentic involvement with life.  We abhor getting bogged down in the boring routines of the everyday, so we withdraw from those potential involvements in search of something more meaningful.  And our exposure to culture brings to our attention the possibilities of our being involved in wonderful and exciting narratives. So we withdraw from the everyday and become isolated.

This is the paradox.  Elisabeth and Paul were educated, but their education led them to their isolation. And this is what is happening today. Although the paradoxical isolating process may have been accelerated with the advent of television, it seems to be even more magnified in the modern era of social media.  These media are supposed to connect everyone, but instead we see many people withdrawing into their pseudo-narrative shells.  And, as I mentioned earlier, for those who are guarded and worried about losing their exciting-narrative opportunities, the pseudo-narratives they most easily construct are based on hatred and resentment.  Thus we now have the quasi-fascist Alt-right grouping in the US that spreads its resentment-filled pseudo-narratives via social media and fake news stories.  This leads to segregation and mutual hostility, and it can also lead to people politically supporting bigoted demagogues whose simplistic pseudo-narratives cannot possibly accommodate the diversity that feeds a fruitful society.

We need better social media that do not to keep us individually looking into “the cloud”, but instead help bring about more, and more meaningful, face-to-face interactions.

Telling a tale such as this is not easy.  There is the fundamental difficulty here of presenting an authentic drama (which inherently must be conveyed by role-playing) that is fundamentally about the dangers and false seductions of role-playing.  We must have actors and a film director who can realistically present someone who is staging false theatrics and accomplish this by means of believable staged theatrics.  In this respect I would say that Nicole Stéphane (in the role of Elisabeth) and Jean-Pierre Melville both succeeded brilliantly.  Stéphane’s acting is one of the most entrancing screen performances I have seen. 

The film acting was effectively combined with three other key elements of the production to maintain a sense of affective interiority.  Jean Cocteau’s voiceover narration sustained a level of reflective commentary on what happened.  The nondiegetic music, featuring Bach’s “Concerto for Four Pianos” and Vivaldi’s “Concerto Grosso”, also cast an inward-directed mood over the film.  And Melville’s atmospheric and dynamic expressionism – using variously (a) moody high- and low-angle shots, (b) contextually evocative tracking shots, and (c) dramatically appropriate camera-facing closeups – is beautifully implemented by cinematographer  Henri Decaë.  It all works perfectly to convey the feelings of narrative desperation.

  1. Gary Indiana, Les enfants terribles: Hazards of a Snowball Fight”, The Criterion Collection, (9 July 2007).   
  2. Neel Chaudhuri, “Into the Realms of Light and Darkness: Les Enfants terribles,  Cinémathèque Annotations on Film, Issue 39, Senses of Cinema, (5 May 2006).  
  3. Kevin Jackson, “Enfant Terrible, Jean Cocteau: A Life By Claude Arnaud”, Literary Review, (6 December 2016).   
  4. Variety Staff, “Review: ‘Les Enfants Terribles’”, Variety, (31 December 1949).   

“Sadgati” - Satyajit Ray (1981)

Sadgati (Deliverance, 1981) is a 45-minute, made-for-TV drama that was written, scored, and directed by Satyajit Ray.  The story covers a lowly tanner’s frustrated efforts over the course of a single day to get a consultation with a local Brahmin priest in order to set a propitious date for his daughter’s upcoming marriage ceremony. 

Ray’s script is based on Munshi Premchand’s short story "Sadgati" that was first published in 1931, and it follows Premchand’s story quite closely [1].  The original languages of Ray’s films were almost invariably his native Bengali, but since Premchand’s story was originally in Hindi  (Hindustani, actually) and the film was to be released on national television in Hindi, Ray needed to produce a Hindi script.  It is my understanding that in this case Ray wrote his dialogue for the film in English, which was then translated into Hindi by Premchand’s son, Amrit Rai. 

The overlying theme of the film concerns the Indian caste system and its singular way of channeling human interactions.  The Indian caste system has always been a matter of controversy – it has a long and disputed history, and, of course, it has manifested itself variously across India and evolved over the years.  Nevertheless, it is generally agreed that the elements of the caste system date back to Vedic times, and that, though the system has been adopted and exploited by various invaders, the caste system has been basically unique to India and has been amazingly persistent over the course of time [2,3,4].

The caste system makes reference to (a) the four varnas, which are essentially the primary social classes –  Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras – as well as to (b) the jatis, which comprise the thousands of occupationally oriented castes within those classes [2].  I am not expert in this area, but I will offer the following quote from Heinrich Zimmer concerning how the caste system was seen to fit in to the entire socio-philosophical fabric of India [5]:
    Caste is regarded as forming an innate part of character.  The divine moral order (dharma) by which the social structure is knit together and sustained is the same as that which gives continuity to the lives of the individual; and just as the present is to be understood as a natural consequence of the past, so in accordance with the manner in which the present role is played will the caste of the future be determined.  Not only one’s caste and trade, furthermore, but also all the things that happen to one (even though apparently through the slightest chance), are determined by, and exactly appropriate to, one’s nature and profoundest requirement.  The vital, malleable episode at hand points back to former lives; it is their result – the natural effect of bygone causal factors operating on the plane of ethical values, human virtues, and personal qualities, in accordance with universal natural laws of elective attraction and spontaneous repulsion.  What a person is and what he experiences are regarded as strictly commensurate, like the inside and the outside of a vase.
    The correct manner of dealing with every life problem that arises, therefore is indicated by the laws (dharma) of the caste (varna) to which one belongs, and of the particular stage-of-life (āśrama) that is proper to one’s age.
Premchand’s story is relatively straightforward, but bitterly ironic and a castigation of the caste system.  Ray’s artistry was in the way he elegantly translated the short narrative into cinematic form.

The story begins in the morning with a diligent tanner, Dukhi (played by Om Puri), preparing a gift of cut grass to give to the Brahmin that he is to see.  His wife Jhuria (Smita Patil) urges him to delay his meeting with the Brahmin, since he has not fully recovered from a recent fever. Meanwhile we see the well-fed Brahmin (Mohan Agashe) at home attending to his ceremonial makeup and rituals. 

Dukhi arrives at the Brahmin’s home and humbly prostrates himself on the floor when he sees the Brahman.  Since Dukhi is a tanner, he belongs to one of the artisan groupings that is considered fundamentally impure and untouchable before the revered holy man [6].  The Brahmin’s response to Dukhi’s simple request to provide a propitious wedding date for his daughter is supercilious and scornful, and he tell Dukhi that he first must perform some menial tasks for the Brahmin.  First he is to sweep his verandah and then move a lot of husk to the cowshed.  Ray and  cinematographer Soumendu Roy have a nice tracking shot here showing Dukhi dutifully struggling with the heavy bag of husk that he must carry to the cowshed.

This takes some time, and Dukhi is tired, but now the Brahmin orders him to take a small axe and chop up a massive dried log into thin wood chips.  This is clearly a hopeless task for the slightly-built man, and he chops away without making any progress. 

A sympathetic onlooker, who is apparently a member of outcaste Gond minority, offers Dukhi some tobacco for a smoke, but he doesn’t have any way to light it.  When Dukhi approaches the Brahmin for a little charcoal to light his tobacco pipe, the Brahmin’s petulant wife (Gita Siddhdarth) is offended that an untouchable should again cross their doorsill.  Dukhi goes back to his hopeless task of chopping the log, and eventually slumps from exhaustion.

When the Brahmin wakes up from an afternoon nap and sees Dukhi’s inactivity, he imperiously orders the man to chop harder and harder.  Dukhi puts everything he has into the effort and works himself into a frenzy of chopping, but it is finally too much for him.  He collapses to the ground and dies on the spot.

Now all the Brahmins in the village have a problem.  There is a corpse of an untouchable lying on their path to their water well.  Their dharmic rules forbid them from walking there, and of course, those rules also prevent them from touching the untouchable corpse, too.  The people from the tanning colony refuse to move the corpse, thanks to the admonitions of the Gond person, who knows that the Brahmin in our story is guilty of the tanner’s death.  It is starting to rain, and the Brahmin knows that the corpse will begin to smell and the police may arrive and investigate the cause of this death.

So in the evening, with noone around to watch, the Brahmin uses a curved stick to help fasten a sling around the leg of the corpse without he, himself, touching it.  Then he drags the corpse to an animal burial mound and deposits it there.  In the morning, the Brahmin is seen proudly and ritually hand-sprinkling holy water (water from the Ganges) on the ground where the corpse had been lying so that that ground will be cleansed of the impurity caused by the untouchable’s body.

The Brahmin and his wife are not evil people, but they are comfortably situated inside a system that perpetuates injustice – and they take advantage of it for their own selfish gains.  And those who remain, such as Jhuria and her daughter, can do nothing but suffer.

Dukhi was a dedicated believer in the social system in which he lived, even though he was an outcaste.  So we see that traditional Indian society had similarities with modern socio-political hierarchies in today’s world (as reflected by recent political events) – the people who are most loyally supportive of their demagogic, populist leaders are the very ones who suffer the most at the hands of the exploitative, rent-seeking coalition that has control over them.

This filming of Sadgati has just the right tone for the telling of this tale.  Besides the cinematography of Soumendu Roy, there is the impeccable work of Ray’s usual film editor, Dulal Dutta.  And, as usual, there is Ray’s moody, low-key music that maintains the right tone.

  1. English translation: T. C. Ghai, “Prem Chand's story: Sadgati”, Interactions (Blogger), (12 March 2013).  
  2. “Caste System in India”, Wikipedia, (18 November 2016).  
  3. H. G. Rawlinson, India: a Short Cultural History, Praeger, (1937/1952), pp. 4,25,26. 
  4. Heinrich Zimmer, The Philosophies of India, Bollingen Series, Princeton University Press, (1951).
  5. Ibid., p. 152.
  6. "Chamar", Wikipedia, (1 December 2016).

Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck

Films of Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck:

“The Lives of Others” - Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck (2006)

The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen, 2006) was writer-director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s remarkable feature-film debut that has attracted widespread international acclaim [1,2,3] and won a US Oscar for Best Foreign Film.  Set in East Germany (German Democratic Republic) when the government’s paranoid and oppressive secret police, the Stasi (“State Security”), engaged in massive surveillance of its citizenry, the story is a drama concerning both the watchers and the watched in this context.  In this respect the film may be compared to Mohammad Rasoulof’s Manuscripts Don't Burn (2013), which examines an instance of Iranian government surveillance from a similarly dual perspective.  What makes The Lives of Others particularly outstanding is that it works on many levels – it’s a political thriller, a psychological drama, and even a cinematic moral and philosophical meditation.  Partly in response to these multiple themes, some critics have praised the film’s dramatics but have still condemned some of its presumed meaningful implications [4,5].

The film begins in the appropriate Orwellian year of 1984, when the Stasi was working on its ambitious and pernicious goal of compiling secret portfolios on every citizen in the GDR.  This was five years before the fall of the Berlin Wall and six years before the demise of the GDR. At this time the Stasi was East Germany’s largest employer, with about 100,000 regular employees and another 200,000 additional informants. 

The story concerns a prominent East German playwright who had, unlike most of that country’s intellectuals, up to this point escaped state scrutiny because of his innocent pro-Communist views and uncontroversial writings. As one senior Stasi senior office remarks, this man is "our only non-subversive writer who is also read in the West.” However, intellectuals are always considered to be threats by dictatorships [6], and early on in this story, a meticulously diligent Stasi captain is assigned to monitor this writer and see if there is any dirt that can be uncovered about him. The Stasi have no real suspicions about this writer, but they habitually perceive their career opportunities as being based on uncovering uncomfortable secrets about everyone.

As a psychological drama, the story is particularly interesting, because the five principal characters have differing moral outlooks towards others, and as the story unfolds, the moral perspectives of three of these characters (the first three listed below) evolve in response to their mutual interactions.  This is what distinguishes The Lives of Others from Manuscripts Don’t Burn.  The five principal characters are the following:

  • Georg Dreyman (played by Sebastian Koch) is the successful playwright.  He is an empathetic and cordial individual who seeks social harmony among those with whom he interacts.  As such, he is well liked but is sometimes criticized by colleagues more concerned about the GDR’s deprivation of human rights.  Also, Dreyman is passionately in love with his girlfriend, Christa-Maria Sieland.
  • Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe) is a Stasi captain sincerely dedicated to ruthlessly following his organization’s rules and pursuing its professed goals in order to protect the Socialist state.  He is soft-spoken and polite, but he seems to have no personal connections with anyone and is the quintessential loner.  His survival instincts have presumably led him to maintain an expressionless demeanor at all times.
  • Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck) is one of the country’s leading young actresses and is committed to her professional success. She is kind and sensitive, but she has some characterological weaknesses, too, as suggested by her evident addiction to some unspecified narcotic.
  • Lieutenant-Colonel Anton Grubitz (Ulrich Tukur) is Wiesler’s Stasi boss who is jovial but ultimately an opportunist.  He tries to maintain a convivial front, but has no compassion for people in his way.
  • GDR Culture Minister Bruno Hempf (Thomas Thieme) is a brutish, unscrupulous reprobate who uses his high position to further his selfish interests.
The film focalizes on the first three characters listed above.  It begins showing Wiesler lecturing his students at the Stasi academy on how he cold-bloodedly uses stress and extreme sleep deprivation to extract confessions from his “subjects”.  It is clear from this segment that torture is one of the weapons of the Stasi’s service to the state. Later after attending the state performance of one of Georg Dreyman’s plays, Wiesler’s own suspiciousness, and perhaps his personal envy, lead him voice his perceived doubts about Dreyman and to his being assigned by Culture Minister Bruno Hempf to monitor the author. In short order Wiesler and his colleagues go to Dreyman’s apartment while he is out and set up monitoring equipment to record everything that is said there.  Then he sets up shop in the attic of Dreyman’s building so that he and his subordinate can listen in on Dreyman’s activities.

Note that while Wiesler and his colleague in this operation can listen in and look out the window to see the street (for example, to see the entries to and exits from of Dreyman’s building), what they record for the Stasi is only text – there are no sound recordings or films made in connection with their surveillance. The difference between the richness of real-world experience and sparseness of text is important.  Wiesler even commented about this to his academy students when he warned them that if one of their interrogation subjects repeats the same testimony word-for-word, then it is not real; it is only memorized text and has no foundation in the real world.  But as the story proceeds, we see that Wiesler’s’ world is similarly impoverished.  He is living in a textual rule-based context that is removed from the richness of the real world.  However, as he listens in on Dreyman’s life, he starts making the connection. 

The focalization shifts back and forth between Dreyman’s life with his live-in girlfriend Christa-Marie and the headphone-clad Wiesler listening in upstairs.  Dreyman is concerned about his depressed director friend Albert Jerska (Volkmar Kleinert), whose outspokenness has caused him to be blacklisted for the past seven years. Wiesler, meanwhile, is becoming fascinated with the richness of Dreyman’s world. While Dreyman is out, he sneaks into his apartment and “borrows” a book of Brecht’s poetry that Jerska had recommended to Dreyman.

Wiesler also learns that Christa-Marie is apparently secretly seeing some man who picks her up outside the apartment in a big limousine. Looking up the limousine’s license plate number, Wiesler discovers that it belongs to Minister Hempf, who is apparently forcing his sexual advances on the woman.  Now Wiesler, the loyal Stasi functionary, realizes that his entire project of spying on Dreyman was merely Hempf’s vicious effort to eliminate his romantic rival for Christa-Marie’s attentions. So Wiesler takes another step in involving himself in Dreyman’s personal life by contriving to have Dreyman learn about the sordid affair.

Later Dreyman learns of his friend Jerska’s suicide, and he mournfully sits down at the piano and plays the piano piece, “Sonata for a Good Man”, the sheet music for which had been given to him by Jerska at his recent birthday party.  Listening in on his headphones upstairs, Wiesler is moved and sheds tears.

When Christa-Marie is about to go out for the evening, Dreyman, knowing that she is going to see Hempf, begs her not to go.  He knows that she is seeing the man in order to further her acting career, but Dreyman tells her to believe in her own talent and not to rely on the favors of a powerbroker.  She leaves anyway, and Dreyman is upset.  So, too, is Wiesler, who has been listening in on his headphones.  To calm himself, Wiesler heads out to a local bar and happens  to see Christa-Marie come in there for a drink, too.  Identifying himself merely as a fan, Wiesler approaches and urges her to believe in her own talent.  Hearing this urging from a second source and reminding her of Dreyman’s love for her, she returns to Dreyman’s apartment and abandons her tryst with Hempf.  Clearly, Wiesler is now becoming further immersed in Dreyman’s world.

On the Dreyman side of things, Jerska’s suicide has moved Dreyman to finally raise his voice in the social sphere.  He decides to write an article about East Germany’s enormous, but carefully kept secret, suicide rate and have it published anonymously in the West.  There is a clever plot twist at this point, though, that almost foils his plans.  He and his close associates, of course, want to keep this article-publishing project secret, and just to check whether they are being monitored, they stage a ruse: a fake, illegal border-crossing into West Berlin that they loudly discuss inside Dreyman’s apartment.  Wiesler overhears this phony plan, but his growing compassion for Dreyman prevents him from reporting it.  So when the fake border-crossing is not intercepted by the authorities, Dreyman and his pals assume the apartment is not bugged, and they go ahead and discuss their plans for the article.  Wiesler then learns about their real intentions, but he still balks at reporting them. Soon Dreyman’s article is published externally in Der Spiegel, much to the humiliation and consternation of the GDR and the Stasi.

But the Stasi’s perfidy has multiple avenues, and at this point the focalization shifts to Christa-Marie.  Hempf, vengeful for having been spurned by the woman, has the Stasi arrest her for narcotic addiction, and they threaten her with prison unless she becomes one of their informants.  Then, in one of the more dramatic moments of a very dramatic film, Christa-Marie succumbs to her human weakness and agrees to inform on Dreyman.

This leads to the dramatic and tragic“finale”, where Wiesler once again secretly takes an action that saves Dreyman from arrest and finally torpedoes the Stasi investigation into the man.  But the film doesn’t end with that seemingly climactic event, and von Donnersmarck boldly continues his story with something of a coda that describes some events over the ensuing nine years. 

Although Wiesler was too careful to be caught helping Dreyman, he was suspected of doing so, and his Stasi career was ruined.  He is quickly sidelined into the menial task of steam-opening private letters for the Stasi. 

In 1991, with the GDR now defunct, Dreyman runs into Hempf attending a performance of one his plays and asks the man why he was never placed under surveillance  in those old days.  Hempf shocks Dreyman by telling him that he was indeed under full surveillance.  Hempf then scornfully tells him that,    
“We knew that you couldn’t give our little Christa what she needed.”
To which the ever-civilized Dreyman only responds with,
“To think that people like you once ruled a country.”
Now  Dreyman goes to the State Security archives, which are at this point a “Research Site and Memorial” and asks for access to the files that the Stasi had had on him.  When he examines them at length, he discovers that they did have a lot of detail about his activities but that an agent code-named “HGW XX/7" had written false reports that covered up Dreyman’s “treasonous” work on his article that was published abroad.  Dreyman doesn’t know why the man did this, but two years later he dedicates his latest book, Sonata for a Good Man to “HGW XX/7".  The final scene shows Wiesler, now just a postal delivery man, purchasing a copy of the book and reading the dedication.

The marvel of The Lives of Others is the way it works on multiple levels –  a political drama, a gripping human story, and an insightful look at human interactions.  Credit for this outstanding work goes to Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, of course, but it must be remarked that all aspects of the production values are superb. That includes the cinematography of Hagen Bogdanski, the editing of Patricia Rommel, and the music of Gabriel Yared and Stéphane Moucha.  In particular, Yared’s original composition “Sonata for a Good Man” is a key element in the story told. It all has to be first-rate in order for this complex tale to work.  Furthermore, the acting is uniformly good, in particular that of Ulrich Mühe in the role of Wiesler.  In this role, he has to be low-key, but subtly nuanced.  Take a look at Wiesler’s final expression at the close of the film to see what I mean.  Incidentally, Mühe, who tragically died of cancer within a year of the film’s release, had his own experiences with the Stasi’s depredations back in those days.  And I wonder if his experiences may have been partly an inspiration for von Donnersmarck.

Still, there have been some reviewers who have criticized the film for overly humanizing a member of the treacherous state apparatus [4,5]. They want it all black-and-white, so that Satan can be rightfully condemned.  But it is never so simple as that.  And if the historical narrative is always told too simply, then when a truly inherently demonic individual comes to the fore, people may have difficulty recognizing him. 

In general people often get misled, misinformed, or simply coerced into cooperating with corrupt regimes.  As Masha Gessen has recently and succinctly stated [7],
“Criminal regimes function in part by forcing the maximum number of subjects to participate in the atrocities.”
This is how they compromise their own people into cooperating with their crimes.  Gessen reminds us that there are numerous state security organizations involved in massive, illegal surveillance and the denial of human rights around the world – even in the US.  In the US context, these basic violations of liberal democracy have been exposed by Edward Snowden‘s revelations and covered in several recent documentary films – United States of Secrets (Part One): The Program (2014), United States of Secrets (Part Two): Privacy Lost (2014), Citizenfour (2014), and Terminal F/Chasing Edward Snowden (2015).  The US government has also supported and cooperated with the state security organizations of other autocratic government.  For example,
  • the US was clandestinely involved in human rights suppression in South America in the 1960s and 1970s – cf. The City of Photographers (2006);
  • the US CIA taught torture techniques, based on captured Nazi documents, to the SAVAK secret police of the government of Iran ruled by Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi [8,9,10].
Christa-Marie was pressured into being an informant.  Wiesler was initially brainwashed.  But in both cases, we could see their underlying humanity.  In Wiesler’s case, he opened up as a human being when he was exposed to the full flush of Dreyman’s lifeworld.  Wiesler had been captive to a world dominated by text – by categorical conclusions that could lead to categorical acts of cruelty and suppression.  When his job led him to being immersed in Dreyman’s lifeworld, Wiesler was exposed to more subtle feelings of love and compassion.  This awakened the “good man” (the “angel”) that lies deep inside every person, even a Stasi operative. But it has to be nurtured and invoked.  It was the complex richness of life – in music and human interactions – that finally moved Wiesler to compassion.  Von Donnersmarck  is suggesting to us that beautiful music – not text – can do that for us.   And, of course, love can do that, too – if we only embrace it when it appears.

  1. Roger Ebert, “The Lives of Others”, RogerEbert.com, (20 September 2007).   
  2. Mick LaSalle, “Secret Police Spy on Happy Couple in Brilliant Thriller”, San Francisco Gate, (16 February 2007).   
  3. Anthony Lane, “Guilty Parties 'The Lives of Others'“, The New Yorker, (12 February 2007).   
  4. J. Hoberman, “Stasi Cinema”, The Village Voice, (30 January 30 2007).  
  5. Timothy Garton Ash, “The Stasi on Our Minds”, The New York Review of Books, 31 May 2007).  
  6. Santiago Ramos, “Why Dictators Fear Artists”, First Things, (23 July 2007).  
  7. Masha Gessen, “Trump: The Choice We Face”, The New York Review of Books, (27 November 2016).  
  8. Seymour M. Hersh, “Ex-Analyst Says C.I.A. Rejected Warning on Shah; Shah Was a Source for C.I.A.”, The New York Times, 7 January 1979.
  9. Alexander Cockburn & James Ridgeway, “The Shah and the Hot-Egg Tango”, The Village Voice (“The Moving Target” column), 4 December 1978.
  10. A. J. Langguth, “Torture’s Teachers”, The New York Times, 11 June 1979.