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.

“Nayak” - Satyajit Ray (1966)

Nayak (The Hero, 1966) is a film by Satyajit Ray that examines the paradoxical loneliness of a movie star who is always surrounded by his admirers.  Although ostensibly a film about a hitherto unreflective public personality, Ray seems to have invested in the film many of his own personal feelings.  Indeed Ray, the consummate cinematic craftsman, put his personal stamp on all aspects of the production.  In addition to being the film’s director, Ray also wrote the screenplay (this was his second original screenplay after Kanchenjungha (1962)), wrote the music, and co-edited the film.  Although the film is not among those listed as Ray’s greatest, it has always retained a loyal following [1,2].

The matinée idol who is the principal character in the story is played by the Bengali male movie star at the time, Uttam Kumar.  Evidently Ray had Kumar in mind when he wrote his story and felt that Kumar was the natural embodiment of what he intended to portray [3,4].  The female co-star in the tale is played by Sharmila Tagore, who had earlier starred in Ray’s The World of Apu (Apur Sansar, 1959) and Devi (The Goddess, 1960). The always magnetic Ms. Tagore was still very young (twenty) at this time, and again she plays an interesting character, on this occasion a somewhat highbrow and self-satisfied magazine editor in horned-rim glasses.

The film’s story focuses on the movie star Arindam Mukherjee (played by Uttam Kumar) during his long, overnight train trip from Kolkota to Delhi, where he is going to receive a prestigious award. Along the way he meets fellow passenger Aditi Sengupta (Sharmila Tagore), and their encounter turns out to be an eye-opening experience for the customarily proud screen star.

The telling of this tale underscores some themes of interest, and this contributes to the film’s effectiveness. 
  • For one thing, this is a train movie, which I always find fascinating.  Train movies often metaphorically suggest some passage involving people headed for a shadowy destination that they cannot avoid.   There is also the very physical representation of confinement and cramped quarters, which can disrupt privacy and force people to come together.  And with respect to the particular case of India, its remarkable railroad system has undoubtedly left its special mark on its people. Some of the great train movies of the past include von Sternberg’s The Shanghai Express, Renoir’s La Bête Humaine, Wenders’s The American Friend, von Trier’s Europa, and Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps, The Lady Vanishes, Strangers on a Train, and North by Northwest.   In most of those films, a train trip is only part of the plot, whereas the train trip in Nayak spans the entire story.
  • Another theme of interest is withdrawal.  As the story unwinds and Arindam recounts a number of his past experiences to Aditi, we get the sense that Arindam’s past life has featured some key events involving his withdrawal from a situation so that he could retain his control in a crowded context and hold onto his status as a “hero”.  But these withdrawals naturally entailed missed opportunities or lost connections for which he starts to realize he has lingering regrets.
  • A third theme is pervasive personal exploitation.  Many of the people shown on the train are cordial but primarily out for their own personal gain.  They want to use other people in order to  get ahead.  As Arindam and Aditi get to know each other, the two of them begin to move away from that approach. 
The story of Nayak unfolds in three sections or acts.

1.  Setting off on the Train
The film introduces the big movie star Arindam Mukherjee boarding the train as well as some other well-off passengers who will be on board.  In one sleeping car compartment is Arindam and the wealthy industrialist Haren Bose, who is traveling with his wife and their fever-encumbered teenage daughter.  In another compartment is a taciturn swami along with an advertising executive, Pritish Sarkar, and his young wife, Molly. Also onboard elsewhere is the young women’s magazine editor Aditi Sengupta.  Most of the people on the train are thrilled to have the movie star among them, although many are aware that Arindam was an item in the day’s newspapers for having punched a man at a local nightclub.  Sarkar, though, is more interested in the possibility of securing an advertising contract with Bose. When Sarkar sees that Bose is attracted to his wife, he unhesitatingly tells his wife, much to her horror, to coquettishly play up to him.

In the dining car Aditi approaches Arindam for his autograph, but the encounter is not so satisfactory.  Aditi is disdainful of movie star glitz, and Arindam is equally dismissive of the less-than-awed young woman.  Later, though, when the cocky Arindam is back in his compartment and has a snooze, he has a disturbing dream: while at first he finds himself outside walking through piles of paper money, he later falls into a “quicksand” money hole and is about to be buried.

2.  Conversation with Aditi

Despite himself, Arindam is drawn to interact with the more thoughtful passenger Aditi, and the entire second act of the film consists of an extended conversation they have together in the dining car.  Aditi wants to capture a different side of the movie star in order to interest her magazine readers, so she asks him to tell her about his pivotal early experiences.  In the course of answering her questions, Arindam reflects on some troublesome moments in his past. Of course Ray in this case does not subject the viewer to forty minutes of pure talk, and much of what Arindam tells Aditi is presented in the form of flashbacks.

After first telling Aditi about his money quicksand dream, he tells her about his early experiences under the direction of his stage-acting mentor, Shankar (Flashback 1).  Shankar was dogmatically opposed to Arindam going into the movies, because he says movie acting is totally artificial, and movie actors are only puppets.  To be a movie actor, in Shankar’s view, is to lose one’s vital connection to an audience.  Actually, the tension between more distant stage theatricality and more intimate cinematic portrayal of human feelings is not a simple matter, and it was probably something that Ray, himself, reflected upon.  Robert Bresson, for example, was concerned how the cinema camera tended to accentuate the artificiality of screen actors and sought ways to get around it [5].  In any case Arindam tells Aditi that after Shankar’s sudden death by heart attack, he decided to withdraw from the recommended stage actor’s connectivity with his audience and become a more widely known screen actor.

Subsequently in their conversation, Arindam recalls his first movie-acting experience, where he was overshadowed by the domineering veteran Mukunda Lahiri and forced into overacting his part (Flashbacks 2 and 3).  Later, after Mukunda’s career had collapsed, Arindam took his revenge on the out-of-work actor by refusing to help him get a job.  Although Arindam’s behaviour here echoed Ray’s own practice in connection with offering bit parts [3], it again reflected Arindam’s tendency to withdraw from human engagement.

Then Arindam told Aditi how he refused to help his longtime friend Biresh in connection with his friend’s social activism (Flashback 4), and once again we see Arindam’s instincts on display to withdraw from situations he fears might damage his image as a hero.

Finally, after Arindam and Aditi have returned to their separate quarters, Arindam has a personal flashback reminiscence of his encounter with a cheeky young actress, Promila (Flashback 5).  Her insistence on getting Arindam to help her get an acting job was successful on this occasion, so we see that Arindam’s principles that led him to refuse Mukunda were not so steadfast when feminine charm came into play.

3.  Coming to Terms
Arindam has another surrealistic dream, this time involving Promila, his extramarital affair with whom was apparently the cause of the reported nightclub alteration.  In response to all these troubling recollections and nightmares, Arindam starts reflecting on the now-recognized emptiness of his life, and so he gets roundly drunk.  In a besotted daze he even contemplates suicide before encountering Aditi once more.  He wants to make a further confession to her, about his affair with Promila, but Aditi sympathetically tells him she doesn’t need to hear it.  She abandons her selfish concerns about publishing their interview and even tears up her notes that she had taken about it.  She assures him that she will only keep it in her memory.  When the train arrives in Delhi, everyone goes their separate ways and returns to their earlier preoccupations.

Although the train has arrived at its destination, Nayak’s ending does not offer a full resolution of what has come before.  The passengers in the story’s background – Bose, Sakar, Molly, and the swami – remain as avaricious (they see themselves as “deal makers”) and self-centered as before.  As for Arindam and Aditi, they return to their separated lives, presumably never to see each other again.  There was no romantic involvement between them, only a growing respect and mutual sympathy. Thus their encounter has evolved away from personal exploitation towards interpersonal empathy.  This is often the case in Ray’s films, where the full situated complexities of life are on display and simple plot resolutions are unlikely to resolve the complex issues before us. Instead, Ray’s films often conclude by turning the protagonists in a new direction.  This is the case with Arindam at this film’s end.  The opportunity provided by Aditi to reflect on issues that had unconsciously been troubling him offers Arindam the chance to come to new terms with his life. 

Nayak is an example of Satyajit Ray’s elegant and sympathetic portrayals of people trying to come to terms with the complex world around them. That he always managed to do this by engaging his audiences in the contexts and terms of a number of different cinematic styles and genres has always been a wonder.  Partial credit for those achievements must go to key members of his production team, including Subrata Mitra (cinematography), Dulal Dutta (film co-editing), and Bansi Chandragupta (production design).  Together with Ray, they managed to make the confinements of the train environment real and dynamically alive with atmospheric vitality.

  1. Murtaza Ali Khan, “Nayak (1966): Satyajit Ray's brooding character study featuring a heart-wrenching performance from Uttam Kumar”, A Potpourri of Vestiges, (July 2015). 
  2. Ranjan Das, “Nayak”, Upperstall, (2014).  
  3. Marie Seton, Portrait of a Director: Satyajit Ray,  (1971), Indiana University Press, pp. 194-201.
  4. Chale Nafus, “NAYAK (The Hero)”, Austin Film Society, (2014).
  5. Max Nelson, “The Intrusion Artist”, Public Books, (15 November 2016).  

“La Guerre est Finie” - Alain Resnais (1966)

Alain Resnais’s fourth feature film, La Guerre est Finie (English: The War is Over, 1966) was, like his previous three features – Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959), Last Year at Marienbad (1961), and Muriel (1963) – another cinematic expedition into how we construct our personal narratives from ideas and past memories.  On this occasion, though, his film was less overtly theoretical and had more dramatic action and a tense political context that perhaps makes it more accessible than his earlier works [1,2]. Nevertheless, the film is very much a continuation of Resnais’s contemplative themes about love and life.

The story of La Guerre est Finie concerns a few days in the life of a contemporary (1965) Spanish revolutionary, Diego Mora, who has spent his life working to overthrow the long-ruling fascist Spanish dictator, Francisco Franco.  Franco had come to power during the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) [3], when fascist forces overthrew the democratically elected Republican government.  Since, at the time, that  overthrown Spanish republican government had included communists and socialists, it was one of the rare times in history in which such a leftist government had emerged in a democratic fashion.  As such, that Spanish republican government has always been cherished by leftists who believed in the peaceful emergence of socialism, and so its restoration had always been for them a romantic dream. 
Thus, on one level at least, Diego represents one of those romantic dreamers dedicated to (re-)establishing that idyllic socialist paradise.  But Diego in this film is not just an abstraction; he undoubtedly reflects to some degree the real-life characteristics and circumstances of the film’s screenwriter, Jorge Semprun.  Semprun had a fascinating background. After having been  imprisoned in the Buchenwald concentration camp during World War II, he worked clandestinely in Spain as an anti-Franco revolutionary for the Communist party from 1953 to 1962.  In 1964 he was expelled from the Spanish Communist Party over ideological differences, whereupon he commenced his writing career, with La Guerre est Finie as his first output.  He would subsequently contribute to the scripts of a number of political thrillers, including Costa-Gavras’s Z (1969), The Confession (1970), Special Section (1979), and Resnais’s Stavisky... (1974).  He later even served as Spain’s Minister of Culture from 1988 to 1991.

So Semprun was not only a social activist but a thinker, and what we have in La Guerre est Finie is a full-spectrum depiction of a thoughtful man, a man with ideas, worries, goals, and passions. Resnais tells this tale, in cooperation with his frequent cinematographer Sacha Vierny and musical composer Giovanni Fusco (Hiroshima Mon Amour, L’Avventura, L’Eclisse, Red Desert), by offering in slow-disclosure fashion a potpourri of incidental detail that conjures up the inner, mental life of the protagonist [4].  This includes momentary flashbacks as well as imaginary “flash-forwards” – worriedly imagined possible future events.  These suggest that the narrative witness is not just an external companion that is observing the action, but is also privy to Diego’s stream of consciousness. All this is more impressionistic than expressionist (although the word “impressionistic” has been confusingly used in the past with respect to films, and I will not dwell on that term), and it represents one of the most refined examples of Resnais’s unique style of storytelling.

Resnais’s approach here can only work if the director has good acting in the key roles, and Resnais was fortunate to work on this occasion with two stars who gave outstanding performances: Yves Montand and Ingrid Thulin.  Indeed, although the film’s focalization is almost exclusively on Diego, Thulin’s sensitive performance as his girlfriend is, to me, the most crucial element in the film.

As mentioned above, the film dwells in Diego’s mental space, and he we see that he is not just a monomaniac obsessed with his revolutionary activism; he is, like most all people, a complex individual with multiple areas of concern.  Three of these areas, or levels, are of especial significance, each of which has its associated narrative:
  • Political Justice
    Diego is a professional revolutionary who has no other occupation than to work secretly to undermine the Franco government.  Associated with this level of concern is the Marxist-Leninist narrative that prescribes a roadmap for obtaining the desired revolutionary outcome. Diego operates within this narrative, but since it has failed to make progress in Spain for more than twenty-five years, he has serious doubts as to its efficacy.
  • Romantic Adventure.
    Diego is an adventurer who enjoys the excitement and camaraderie of working together on dangerous missions. He tells his girlfriend, Marianne, that when he is outside of Spain, he misses “being part of something together.” Irrespective of whether the grand communist design is succeeding, Diego revels in his abilities to be a major player in this game, and this includes spontaneous romantic episodes with similarly inclined adventurers of the opposite sex. In this connection Diego plays many distinct roles with separate aliases for each role.
  • Love.
    One of those past romantic episodes evolved into a serious relationship with a woman who loves him passionately. His now steady girlfriend, Marianne, wants them to have a long life together, and she spends her time thinking of narrative possibilities that could make this happen.
All of Diego’s sometimes-conflicting narratives on these three levels involve wishful goals that are fraught with roadblocks. And in none of these narrative levels of Diego's does hatred or resentment play a role. As the film proceeds, we see Diego’s struggles to come to terms with his multi-layered life.
In the opening sequence, Diego Mora (played by Yves Montand) and his communist sympathizer friend Jude arrive from Spain at the French border town of Biriatou, where Diego is interrogated by a French border inspector (Michel Piccoli).  Diego is illegally entering under the name of René Sallanches, whose passport he is using, and when he is interrogated he coolly fools the guards with his detailed knowledge of the Sallanches family, information about whom he has memorized but whom he has never met. 

Diego goes by many names, and to his communist colleagues, he is “Carlos”.  He spends six months of the year in Madrid and the other six months in Paris working for the party in its efforts to upend the Spanish government by means of labor unrest.  We learn that Diego is returning on his own initiative to France on this occasion in order to warn his communist colleague Juan not to enter Spain from France, because the Spanish authorities are arresting all his close comrades in Madrid and will likely arrest Juan, too, if he arrives there.

Diego goes to Paris and eventually hooks up with (these people are always shifting to clandestine locations) cell boss, Roberto (Paul Crauchet), whom he urges to stop Juan’s imminent departure to Spain. But Roberto overrules Diego, telling him that Juan is urgently needed in Spain to make preparations for a May Day general strike and public demonstration that is only twelve days away.  Roberto, who is doctrinaire communist functionary, tells him that the comrades in Madrid always exaggerate any danger: “they’re too close to things to see the situation clearly.”  So here is a conflict across Diego’s narrative levels.  On the personal “Romantic Adventure” level Diego is concerned about the safety of his comrade Juan; but his superior on the “Public Justice” level tells him that the bigger picture is more important and that he should ignore his concerns about Juan.

But Diego persists on the Romantic Adventure level.  Curious to know more about the Sallanches family, whose daughter Nadine had covered for him when the border police had called her, he tracks down their apartment and is greeted by the beautiful Nadine (Genevieve Bujold).  Nadine, who has communist sympathies,  is impressed that Diego, he calls himself “Domingo” here, is a full-time revolutionary.  Before long they are kissing and wind up making love.  Afterwards they part with the mutual understanding that their encounter was just a romantic moment.

Then Diego goes to his real girlfriend Marianne’s (Ingrid Thulin) apartment, which is where he normally resides when he is in Paris.  Now we enter into the “Love” narrative level, and in this context Diego begins to acknowledge aloud some of the absurdities of his long-frustrated political activities. He tells some of Marianne’s guests,
“Spain is no longer the dream of 1936, but the truth of 1965.”
Later that night Diego and Marianne passionately make love.  It is interesting to compare the two love-making scenes.  With both women, Diego’s approach of undressing his lovers is the same, suggesting he is initially in similar mental states.  But although the two scenes are sensuous, they have distinct feelings to them.  The scene with Nadine is abstract and full of tender innocence (Romantic Adventure); while the scene with Marianne is deeper and more intensely involving (Love).

The next morning Diego attends a meeting with his doctrinaire Spanish Communist Party overseers, and he internally reflects on the futility of “trying to rebuild your country from afar in the likeness of your memory.”  But he is loyal.  As he enters the meeting room he thinks to himself,
“You see once more those desiccated, tireless, worn-out men, fastidious about detail but less clear about the larger picture. . . . Ready to die: your comrades.”
He urges them to cancel the May Day strike, because the Spanish government will be ready for it, but again he is overruled.  In this context, factual evidence and good sense are less important than the ability to quote Lenin.

Later Diego becomes aware that the supposedly innocent Nadine is involved with a youthful gang of communist revolutionaries who pursue a more violent agenda: they want to destabilize the Spanish government by disrupting the tourism industry with terrorist bombings.  Diego is also concerned about Nadine’s safety when he learns that she and her friends are now under police surveillance. 

When Diego returns to Marianne’s apartment, she informs him that he has new, urgent orders to return to Spain the next morning.  Now Diego’s three narrative levels are coming clashingly together.
  • He wants to stop Nadine and her gang from undertaking terrorist acts.
  • He wants to be with Marianne
  • He doesn’t want to carry out the Party’s orders for the new mission.
But Marianne, realizing how important his political activities in Spain are for him, offers her loving support and even says she is willing to move to Spain in order to be with him.  Diego is his typical noncommital self in this exchange:
Marianne: “I love you.”
Diego: “I know you do.”
Nevertheless, Marianne’s love for Diego is boundless.

The next morning Diego resignedly gets ready to go and reflects that, despite his world-weariness, he is still committed to action:
“You’re seized again by the comradeship of long battles. . . . by the stubborn joy of taking action.”
This would seem to indicate that the Political Justice narrative takes final precedence in the film.  However, in the film’s final five minutes the focalization, which had exclusively been on Diego up to this point, shifts to Nadine and Marianne.  We learn that the film’s initial border-crossing event was not so successfully transacted as we had presumed.  Diego’s return to Spain will place him in extreme danger, and Nadine and Marianne rush to try stop him from reentering Spain before it is too late.  Love comes to the fore.

The final shot of the film features a slow dissolve, superposing images of the fatalistically committed Diego and Marianne’s desperate, unvanquishable love, as she attempts to save him.  This, combined with Giovanni Fusco’s celestial music, gave me an epiphany of love’s limitless grace, and it represents one of the greatest film endings I have ever seen.

What makes La Guerre est Finie a great film is that it is not just about a fading political dream, but about life itself.  It is more generally concerned with how we can manage to blend the “I” (Romantic Adventure) with the “We” (Political Justice), and Love is the mysterious key to this, as exemplified by Ingrid Thulin’s moving performance.  Diego’s commitment to his communist goals can be considered in this case to stand for whatever we choose to do in the public world.  These goals we need to fit together with a meaningful sense of spirited adventure that animates our existence.  This can be hard to manage and sustain, but love can often offer the grace to save us and keep us going.

It is especially appropriate to see La Guerre est Finie now, in these recent times of social catastrophe, when the US electorate has pushed America onto a course of permanent eclipse.  The election of a volatile man and his bigoted, rent-seeking entourage bent on dismantling the American institutional structures of democracy, human rights, and the rule-of-law that have long served as a beacon to the wider world can be disheartening to those who have dedicated their lives to making the world a better, more cooperative, place [5,6,7,8]. Many people may be demoralized in the face of the relentlessly backwards-moving  path we are now facing, as another fascist specter has arisen.  But we should not give up [6]. We should instead be inspired by the inarticulable message implicit in this story of La Guerre est Finie.  Look at Marianne’s earnest gaze at the close of the film and forever hold onto it.

  1. Acquarello, “06-06-04: Alain Resnais by James Monaco”, Strictly Film School, (2004).  
  2. Acquarello, “La Guerre est finie, 1966 [The War is Over]”, Strictly Film School, (2003).  
  3. Matthew White, “Spanish Civil War (1936-39) and Franco Regime (1939-75)”, Necrometrics, The Historical Atlas of the 20th Century, (2011).   
  4. Lisa Broad, “La Guerre est finie”, Issue 58, Senses of Cinema, (14 March 2011). 
  5. Meghan O’Rourke, “Mourning Trump and the America We Could Have Been”, The New Yorker, (10 November 2016).  
  6. Masha Gessen, “Autocracy: Rules for Survival”. The New York Review of Books, (10 November 2016).  
  7. Adam Davidson, “What Donald Trump Doesn’t Understand About ‘the Deal’”, The New York Times, (17 March 2016).   
  8. Zoe Williams, “The Dangerous Fantasy Behind Trump’s Normalisation”, The Guardian, (15 November 2016).  

"Pushpak” - Singeetam Srinivasa Rao (1987)

Pushpak (Pushpaka Vimana, in English: The Love Chariot) is a 1987 Indian comedy written, directed, and co-produced by Singeetam Srinivasa Rao that is notable for being a “silent film”. Even though there are contextual and ambient sounds in the film, there is no spoken dialogue, and not even any textual intertitles to advance the narrative. To some extent one might compare the film to some of those minimal-dialogue classics by Jacques Tati, whose whimsical comedies relied mostly on silent gestures. However, since Pushpak’s story is about a penniless young man whose fortunes change when he runs into an inebriated millionaire, a more direct comparison, both thematically and stylistically, would be with Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights (1931).  

Actually, if you can pull it off, a film without dialogue seems to make good sense in a country like India with its many different languages.  But films like this that rely entirely on visual expression are nowadays a rarity, even in India. Singeetam’s Pushpak sets out to succeed on these terms by offering a visual mixture of romance, murder-plot hijinks, and slapstick comedy.  Whether the film does indeed score in this effort may be a matter of taste, but we can say that it certainly has a very strong user rating on the Internet Movie Database (iMDB) [1,2]. 

The story of Pushpak concerns an unemployed middle-class young man who is doggedly looking for a job.  He spends his time standing in hopelessly long queues where similarly desperate people have lined up hoping to fill one of the all-too-few job vacancies.  He lives in a ramshackle shed on the roof a building, above a movie theater that is ironically named, “Talkies”. Every afternoon and evening his room is drowned with the raucous movie soundtracks blaring away in the theater.  He needs to find some way up the ladder.

At more than two hours in running time, the film’s story takes awhile to get going and proceed along its multiple narrative threads.  We can consider the story to have four main acts.

1.  The Young Man’s Situation
The first half hour presents the disheveled life of an unemployed young man. This modest, bespectacled Young Man (played by Kamal Hassan) seems civilized, but his penury is forcing him to squeeze even the last little bits out of his toothpaste tube.  In the tenement building in which he lives, he has to compete with the unruly fellow tenants just to use one of the few common toilets, and this is shown via a slapstick scramble where he keeps missing out that is a direct homage to Chaplin.  

There are also two peripheral characters introduced who appear here and there throughout the story.
  • One is a street beggar towards whom the Young Man feels some patronizing sympathy. But the Young Man is soon humiliated to discover that the beggar has more money than he has.
  • The other is a performing magician, whose public shows are assisted by his beautiful daughter, whom we will call, the “Girl” (played by Amala). The magician is an amusing diversion in the film, since he seems to have fascinatingly magical powers over mundane artifacts.
The Young Man first eyes the Girl in a furnishings store that he had wandered into.  But his bumbling ways (more slapstick) cause him to break things in the store and force him to flee the premises.

2.  The Rich Man
The so-far aimless story livens up when a tipsy Rich Man enters the picture.  He checks into the posh Pushpak Hotel and immediately telephones home to his wife, who is too busy in bed having sex with the Rich Man’s Best Friend to answer the phone.  So the Rich Man returns to his bottle.  In the evening the Young Man encounters the Rich Man passed out drunk on the sidewalk. Seizing the opportunity, the Young Man carries the man to his own flat, gags and ties him up, and confiscates the man’s hotel room key.  He then goes to the hotel room, grabs some cash that he finds there, and assumes the role of the Rich Man.  

This whole section showing the Young Man force-feeding the tied-up Rich Man with alcohol to keep him insensate and attending to his excrement is evidently supposed to be funny, but I found it repellent. It is basically an extended exercise in toilet humor, and it doesn’t fit with the Young Man’s previously-shown timid and civilized demeanor.

3.  The Hired Assassin
One-hour into the film a new plot element emerges in the form of an Assassin (Tinu Anand)  hired by the Rich Man’s Best Friend to bump off the Rich Man in order to claim his wife and his money.  But informed of only the Rich Man’s hotel room number, the Assassin mistakenly targets its current occupant, the Young Man.  The sinister Assassin has a clever scheme for his murder weapon – using a knife formed from frozen water that will melt away after the murder is accomplished.  But despite his supreme confidence, he seems to be a bumbling fool and fails at numerous attempts to stab the Young Man.

Meanwhile the Young Man, now living the high life at the Pushpak hotel, discovers that the magician and his daughter, the Girl, are also staying there and giving performances in the hotel’s lobby.  In fact the rooms of the Young Man and the Girl are located in separate wings of the hotel so that their balconies are facing each other.  This gives the two of them the opportunity to engage in flirtatious sign-language exchanges as they silently acknowledge their growing mutual attraction.

They later sneak out together on a date, with the Young Man trying to show off to the Girl by attempting to buy her expensive things with the Rich Man’s money.  They even try to sneak in a kiss at the cinema, but of course it doesn’t quite happen.

4.   Getting Straight
The Assassin eventually homes in on his mistaken target by sneaking into the hotel room, but again he blunders and almost electrocutes himself in the process.  So he abandons his efforts, and the murder plot collapses.  For his part, the Young Man discovers the sordid truth behind the murder intentions. He is further revulsed when he sees that the earlier-seen street beggar has died and the onlookers on the street are only interested in scrambling after the money hidden in the beggar’s clothing. The world, it seems to him, is consumed with avarice.  So the Young Man decides to come clean and do things the right way. He reflects on the fact that the recently deceased owner of the luxurious Pushpak Hotel had worked his way up from humble beginnings, so why can’t he (the Young Man)? He goes back to his own flat and frees the still besotted Rich Man and leaves him a note confessing his sins.  And he also passes another note to the Girl, confessing that he is not the rich playboy he had pretended to be but is just a poor nobody.  He returns to being the schmoe he had been before.

In the end, everyone is taking their final leave from the Pushpak Hotel.  The Rich Man and his wife seem to arrive at some sort of reconciliation.  As the Girl is departing with her magician family, she sees the Young Man and indicates her forgiveness and her wish to see him again. But fate ultimately blocks that opportunity, and the Young Man is left only with a rose she had left him and his new resolve to work his way up the proper way.

Overall, Singeetam’s Pushpak is fascinating, but it’s something of a mixed bag.  Some things work, and some things not so much.  The production values are generally good, particularly the editing, which is, of course, crucial to the storytelling.  In this regard I particularly liked a number of imaginative, but still natural, occasions when people – whether murder conspirators or romance seekers – were shown compelled by the social context to communicate via gestures.  I also liked the amusing antics of the magician, whose physics-defying sleight-of-hand maneuvers were purely visual.

The musical background in the film is energetic and eclectic, and it often added to the emotional tone. There are also occasionally odd interstitial visuals of trains rushing down the tracks, which are apparently meant to signal narrative transitions.  

But a more significant production facet was the acting.  Tinu Anand’s goofy grimacing in the role of the Assassin goes too far in clownishness and reduces viewer involvement.  More important is the role of the Young Man played by Kamal Hassan, and here Pushpak compares unfavorably to its comic precursor, Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights.  In both films the lead character is often shy to speak, but Chaplin in his film still wears his heart on his sleeve.  The viewer is emotionally engaged with Chaplin’s ups and downs all along the way.  Kamal Hassan, though, is so introverted in Pushpak with respect to self-expression that the viewer doesn’t really much know what he is feeling, and this is a weakness.

Beyond those production values, though, there is the issue of Pushpak’s overall message.  A number of people seem to see the film as primarily having a moralistic message: the Young Man decides in the end to play the game of life fairly [3].  However, whatever moralistic theme the film’s producers may have intended is very much undermined by a couple of factors.  When the Young Man imprisons the Rich Man in his flat, he subjects his victim to physical torture, and the only sustenance he provides is alcohol.  These scenes are apparently supposed to be funny, but I found them merely making light of physical abuse and were painful to watch.  The associated toilet humor was only a further detraction as far, as I was concerned, and greatly lessened my sympathies for the Young Man.

More satisfactory to me was the tentative romantic attraction between the Young Man and the Girl and how this was played out visually.  Films offer a fundamental, multimedia way of expressing emotive experiences, and love is the most exquisite of such.  It was on this plane that Pushpak’s silent gestures worked well.

  1. "The Love Chariot (1987)”, Internet Movie Database, (6/11/2016).  
  2. Note that like most iMDB user ratings, the voting is dominated by males.
  3. Heather Wilson, "Pushpak", Cinema Chaat, (7 May 2011).