The Lives Of Others: beauty and brutality

Maybe it’s just because I’m spending a bit of time around a prison at the moment, but the more I think about this wonderful film The Lives Of Others, the more it makes me think of the (superficially) very different The Shawshank Redemption. From 2006, this German Oscar winner gives us the compelling story of surveillance and subversive artists in East Germany before the Wall came down.

It’s quite a simple story, really. A writer is under suspicion of not being the good pro-government voice he appears to be; a dedicated officer is assigned the task of getting the required evidence from surveillance. Evidence is, of course, a loose term – this is someone the Stasi wants to put away. So they just need the right kind of fabricated material. The trouble is, as the listening ear listens in, he is conflicted. He is changed by what he hears, and finds himself working both sides, trying to save the writer’s life and career.

Not much there to remind me of Shawshank, you might say. Here it is, though. What changes the Stasi is the beauty around the writer. Primarily the music he listens to – but other things, also. The party where ideas are exchanged; the plays he writes; the hum of a community of creativity that never idles. It’s something entirely new to him. As he sits in his room, listening to the writer’s life and apartment – such a contrast with the quiet grey of his own life and surroundings – he’s transported from a prison he wasn’t conscious of to a world he’s never encountered. It’s not far from that memorable Shawshank scene where opera music over the loudspeakers briefly gives every last man in the old place a taste of beauty and a dream of something else; the very effect in a nutshell which Tim Robbins’ character, Andy, is there to bring to each of them. Some of them embrace it, some them fly from it (either ignoring him, attacking him, or damaging themselves). In both films beauty transfigures brutality.

The result of all this in The Lives Of Others is a final 20 minutes at once surprising, inevitable, true, beautiful and tragic. In a quiet way, it certainly inspires action. Extreme dictatorships tend to seek to control scientists and eliminate artists. There are good reasons for this. It’s when we create with love and truth that we are closest to the God in whose image we are made. He creates us to engage in creativity. In doing so, light shines and darkness finds itself powerless.


It’s almost hard to know what to say about this. It feels like everything has been pretty much said already. I can’t remember the last time such volume was aid or written about a summer blockbuster. Christopher Nolan – of Memento, The Prestige and The Dark Knight fame – has clearly been told by his studio to do whatever he likes with a huge budget after the runaway success of The Dark Knight.

I’ve enjoyed every one of Nolan’s. He’s fond of keeping the audience guessing, and woe to you if you tune out for a moment or two at the wrong time. He also knows how to put together a proper action sequence, which means that he’s finding for himself an audience for his brand of intelligent entertainment who would otherwise be going to see The Expendables. For which we can only thank him. He’s sometimes a bit too fond of showing off his narrative dexterity, but let’s be honest – when was the last time you felt the need to criticise a major blockbuster for being a bit too smart?  Exactly – even when he gets that a little wrong, we still owe him some praise for the willingness to raise the bar.

All this is there in Inception, in spades. You know the deal by now, I’m sure. Leo DiCaprio is specialist in the bizarre art/science of inserting ideas into the sub-conscious by way of manufactured dreams. This time he’s called up to do a job of such complexity that everyone else tells him it’s impossible – on the understanding that if he does, he’ll be able to see clear his name regarding his wife’s death and see his children again.

So it begins. Action sequences inside dreams that show us the at-times impossible created with the emphasis on the physical rather than compute generated. Which means more impact, more ‘crunch’, just a more visceral experience – and all the more exciting for it. A plot that layers and folds back on itself faster than a Freudian slip. Leo at his best, Ellen Page continuing her welcome journey to her surely inevitable stardom (I really hope she continues to choose the good stuff she’s chosen thus far…), and Michael Caine, who always seems to crop up somewhere in a Christopher Nolan film.

All of Nolan’s films are , in some way, about how our past affects our present  – and our future, before we’re even aware it’s doing so. If that’s been hinted at, sometimes only subtly but there all the same, since the backward storytelling of his debut Memento then it’s at the front and centre of this, the most successful film he’s made. In the unlikely event you haven’t seen it, I can’t say much more than that. For now, this: even as you let the film’s perfect final scene play in your mind and have the compulsory debate as to whether it means one thing or the other, you also know that you’ve seen a major blockbuster explore how past traumas worm into our sub-conscious and affect us more than we know. It’s hard to believe such a big film manages this – but perhaps that’s why it’s touched such a chord with so many. We all have pasts, all have skeletons of different sizes and shapes in our cupboards. Think about it and the film leaves you asking: what will happen if I don’t seek healing here? Get it, from the God of past, present and future.

Quite Funny People … and hopefully normal service hereby resumed

More apologies. We think technical problems have now been solved, so more normal blogging service looks like being resumed. That’s the plan. While I’m on the subject, the move to South Africa and change of life this results in means less trips to the cinema than in the UK, and sometimes vastly different release dates. So from now on, I’ll be blogging about whatever I see, DVD or cinema – and maybe even the occasional book or other thing. No rules….we’ll just see where it goes to…

I’m no great Adam Sandler fan, not that I can claim to have seen a vast number of his films. Or so I thought. In fact, on checking I discovered that I’d only seen one of his films – The Wedding Singer – and I hadn’t completely hated that; in fact, I think I quite enjoyed it. I must have heard reviewers talk about many of his others and just assumed I wouldn’t like them – probably correctly.

So I come to Funny People. One of those compromise DVD rentals that tend not to end so well. I certainly didn’t have hugely high hopes. If I tell you that it’s one of those films with lots of the star’s comedy friends in it, then you’ll be expecting apoplexy from me. Discover that it’s directed by Judd Apatow, then you may be concerned for my long-term health outlook.

There’s so much in this that counts against me liking this. It’s a comedy film about a stand-up comic, with famous people playing themselves. It’s ‘serious’. It has a comedy fight in it. Some of the comedy is of the deliberately bad type. Yet it somehow just works. Adam Sandler plays a comic with a reputation for big-budget, less than good, films (I know, suspend your belief for a moment); he discovers a life-threatening illness. His stand-up takes a dark turn, and he gets a struggling young comic to write for him and pander to him. The catch? What does Sandler do when he discovers he’s cured and the love and affection being showered on him may not be as sincere as he thought? Throw in some not unpredictable romantic entanglements, and there you have it.

Funny People tries to be a grown-up comedy which is About Things, and please the more regular Sandler audience taste for broader bro-mance. Yet get past the celebrity love-in back-slapping, and the needlessly coarse stand-up footage (good stand-up isn’t always about sex, Sandler), and there really is something going on. I just wonder if what’s going is quite so intentional – and I mean that in a good way. The performances may be smug, but at least they’re good. Even if everyone is playing themselves to greater or lesser extents  – and I’d say that’s open to debate – at least they do so well. Which is much less easy than you might think. The flat-mate relationships go deeper than the usual comedy movie cliche – I’ve seen many a group of single friends just like this. The sense of fearful competition is painfully real, and funny.

Most significantly, though,  the change of comedy gears from slapstick to broad to Serious And About Stuff, may occasionally grate it does seem strangely believable. Maybe we’re seeing more than the film-makers intended: that the whole ‘sad clown’ cliche is not empty but contains a grain of truth. What the finished product of Funny People presents us with may be the idea that a true professional comic is a shifting sand dune of varied personalities, none of them at ease with one another.  One scene shows us Sandler’s character, watching an old film of his with the children of an ex he wants back. He can hardly bear to watch what’s bought him his life and most of his significant relationships – he doesn’t want to watch it, but can’t bear to be parted from it. Does Sandler really feel that about himself? There’s no doubt he’s trying to show the comedy industry as it is; is so, is he really saying that put a life of comedy and performance together, and you seem to end up with a such a diminished sense of self that you’re not even aware of when you’re truly revealing it. That you’re conflicted with narcissism and self-hatred. If the life of the comic shown here really is this isolating, competitive and needing such a complete performance even in private, then no-one inside the industry would, surely, be at peace. Sandler’s character doesn’t know the truth of what he thinks of himself. Is that what he’s saying about himself?

If that probably ignorant speculation is in fact true, then that’s a big step further than Sandler, Apatow et al intended to go. It certainly means I ended up quite liking the film. It does, though mean by watching it you’re watching the unintended comedy of embarrassment; like The Office, only for real. If that doesn’t keep you thinking long after the credits roll, then nothing will.