Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Political Movies

The Lives of Others
I think this one won an Oscar for best foreign language movie. A Stasi agent, set to spy on an East German playwright because the minister overseeing theater is sleeping with his actress girl friend (sort of a casting couch) and wants the playwright out of the way. The movie devotes a certain amount of time to the mechanics of interrogation and bugging an apartment. and typewriter identification. It's crisply done and bears the interest of the real world. The Stasi agent who listens in becomes entranced with their lives. He begins falsifying his reports, saving the playwright from the consequences of his increasing activism, even omitting to report the playwright met with a West German editor of Der Spiegel to publish an attack on the DDR, a piece about the state's refusal to publicize suicide statistics. Other Stasi agents follow up on a lead provided by the minister himself, manage to get information from the girl friend (but not the precise location of the draft of the Der Spiegel article.) The hero of the story then ironically is called in to interrogate the woman himself. He succeeds, natuerlich, but runs to the apartment and removes the proof. The girl friend, depressed, (but unknowing of what he did, even though the man had spoken to her and clearly referred to their conversation!) upon her release a little later immediately commits suicide in front of the apartment. The hero then is demoted to steaming open mail in the Stasi basement.

When the wall falls, he gets up and walks out. Years later, the playwright, when his play is restaged in the glorious West (we saw the girlfriend as the lead in the opening of the movie,) he meets the minister. When asked why he wasn't followed or bugged, the minister says that "We knew everything." The audience knows that the falsified reports are why a trap for the Stasi failed to go off, but the puzzled playwright goes to the Stasi records, now public. He realizes that agent HGW 27 falsified reports. He finds HGW in a menial job delivering magazines, but decides against making his presence known. He then writes a book, Sonata for a Good Man, dedicated to HGW 27. The movie ends when HGW, asked whether to giftwrap the book, says to the clerk, "It's for me." He smiles, for the very first time in the movie (he didn't even smile for the hooker.) Freeze frame.

The love story between the playwright and the actress girlfriend is essentially the tragedy that converts the HGW from soulless automaton to good man. The playwright finds out about her sleeping with the minister when HGW rings the apartment building bell so that her lie about what she was doing is exposed. He confronts her and she breaks it off. The moral of the story is that good and lovely people are tyrannized by evil socialist bureaucrats. After the fall of the wall, the playwright goes on to the proper success he always deserved, cherishing the memory in his heart. The easy assumption that things were great after the fall for the people of the east is nonsense of course.

It is particularly comical to think that the childish "play" put on would be successful in any medium (some BS about a woman who has psychic powers to predict death.) In the first, socialist version, the woman is a factory worker. Part of the playwright's motivation for rebelling is that his preferred director was blacklisted. In the western version at the end, there is just an unworldly set of screens and wraithlike females. The notion that this represents the triumph of art reveals some of the malignant ideological animus infesting this movie.

As is so often the case, reactionary social positions lead to falsification of character. The hook that allows the Stasi to turn the girlfriend into an informer was, wait for it, her drug addiction. The plot demanded some way for the villainous socialist tyrants to undo true love. Unfortunately the idyllic love affair is completely absurd. This disembowels the whole movie. On a minor point of the same ilk, the Der Spiegel editor conducts himself like some sort of James Bond. But the movie treats this without a shade of irony.

The Conformist
Jean-Louis Trintingnant's face is largely expressionless in this movie. But the body language, with its sudden bursts of action, sudden leaps and pirouettes, bespeak the volcano of emotions. The big reveal is that the conformist was haunted by his belief that as a boy he killed a chauffeur who was making sexual advances at the end. Trying to fit in, he becomes a fascist. At the fall of fascism, he sees the chauffeur making advances to a street hustler. Suddenly, he shrieks to the night that the chauffeur is the Fascist who killed Professor Quadri and that his blind friend (whom he abandons,) is a Fascist too. Of course he himself was involved in the murder as finger man, after he slept with the exiled professor's wife on the conformist's honeymoon in Paris. Then he has sex with the street hustler (coyly revealed by the guy's naked buttocks on a bed in an alley.)

The fascist phase of his life is marked by his effort to talk the professor's wife out of going on the trip where the ambush was laid. The action, such as it is, is laid against enormous, often empty sets, extremely stylish. The couture also is extremely stylish. The women's breasts are large, buoyant and bare. I have the distinct impression the director (Bernardo Bertolucci) was one of those who think they are the auteurs, instead of the writer (Alberto Moravia.)

I don't think the inadvertent (?) equation of homosexuality with the roots of fascism is of much interest. Trying to portray conformism in a handful of scenes with wildly eccentric people in small groups doesn't make nearly as much sense as showing it in large groups in normal life. The heart is in the right place. The scene when the conformist confesses the "murder" just to have the priest interested only in the sex acts performed actually approached the ostensible subject matter. But it's hard to rate the movie very highly. The novel?

The Edukators
A couple of young leftists have taken up burgling rich people's house, putting art in the toilet and the stereo in the refrigerator and such. They leave notes signed the Edukators, saying stuff like "The fat years are numbered." One goes off to Barcelona. His girl friend falls in with the other, they hit it off. The guy tells her about their nocturnal hobby. She finds that her bete noire, a wealthy man whose Mercedes she rearended is one of the villas they can break into (because the original boyfriend has a set of security codes.) Vengeful, they break into the man's home and trash the place, smashing wine bottles and throwing the sofa into the indoor swimming pool. They also leave a cell phone. When they return for the cell phone, so does the owner, who of course recognizes the girl. Calling the just returned boyfriend, the trio, in desperation, carries off the businessman to an uncle's mountain cabin. There in a few days, they realize that they can't kill the guy, that this one was really about revenge (not politics,) and saving their asses, that they are a free love threesome (that involves a little fisticuffs to work out.) So they let the guy go, who as it turned out had a radical past and assured them all would be forgotten. The movie ends with three in a bed and the cops pounding at the door and giant satellite antennas. Not to fear, it's deceptive intercutting. They are in a motel, planning to blow up satellite receivers for Europe's telephone systems. By avoiding the grossly maudlin, as in the kidnap victim really did forgive them or having the original boyfriend nobly pass the girl on instead, this amiable nonsese manages to preserve a veneer of believability for willing suspension of disbelief. Very charming.
If you are of a certain political persuasion.

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