The Lives of Others

February 26, 2007

Probably the biggest upset at the Academy Awards last night (certainly not called by yours truly) was Das Leben der Anderen over Pan’s Labyrinth for Best Foreign Language film. I shouldn’t be too surprised; Leben got the most positive New Yorker review of any movie I’ve ever seen. Both were terrific movies, although Leben may be more universal. More than Pan’s Labyrinth, which explored the effects and world of a specific if forgotten tragedy (Franco’s Spain), Leben cut to the heart of human relations in general. Anthony Lane ended his New Yorker review with these words, “You might think that “The Lives of Others” is aimed solely at modern Germans…A movie this strong, however, is never parochial, nor is it period drama. Es ist für uns. It’s for us.”

The Lives of Others success is interesting within the context of recent European cinema. Last year’s winner of the major German Film award was Alles Auf Zucker, a lighthearted family tale about a secular Jewish petty criminal and his Chassidic relatives. Beyond this, however, the movie was “about” the struggle for reunification, about the gaps that still remain between East and West despite a decade of efforts to fill them. In many ways, the movie’s point is that the gap can only be bridged by the humanization of the former other; that it is necessary to leave aside Government programs of reunification, and instead to focus on the humanity of those beyond the wall through human confrontation. It is about coming together through personal experience.

Michael Hanecke’s Cache also dealt with these topics. I won’t go into heavy analysis because that would involve too many spoilers, however, I will say that the idea of the other is at the forefront of the film. In many ways, the movie argues for human recognition of the other via interpersonal relationships. At the very least, the failure to confront the other is the films starting-point.

These movies are all of an ilk that seems to be missing in current American cinema. Unlike during the 1970’s, American directors seem unwilling to confront America’s sordid recent past. It’s a surprising gap given the amount of material to work with, and our receptiveness to foreign films that deal with these topics. Perhaps its time for a new self awareness in our cinema.

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