Friday, August 27, 2010

Sonata for a Good Man

I proclaim my love for films at every opportunity. And yet, the only time I've written of why I watch them, I claimed that their appeal is that they allow me to sit rooted on one spot for hours on end, with an empty thought bubble over my head. This just won't do. If I cannot talk honestly of wonder and of awe, of wisdom at 24 frames per second from cultures I know little of, of strange and terrible people and places - and all this from the comfort of my sofa - then the least I can do is try and come up with a damn good lie.

What better way to pay homage to the ennobling power of cinema than by writing about a film that is itself a metaphor for why we watch films? Now, thinking too long hurts my head, and the 30 seconds I allotted this threw up three: Hitchcock's "Rear Window," De Palma's "Body Double," and Woody Allen's "The Purple Rose of Cairo."

The first film seems to think that we're cold, self-obsessed creatures, who look screen-wards - forever judging, forever condemning - merely because we want to say, "See? That's what people are like, and that is why I want no part of them." The second film, more darkly humourous than the first, adds to this that perhaps we watch because we're perverts who like to get our rocks off on-screen, as we can't get any off it. And the third, wittier than the first two put together, writes us off as people who escape into a reel because we're cowards who cannot face up to anyone or anything in the real world; and even when cinema does offer us a pearl that we could use in our lives, we're inclined to dismiss it as "unreal," and of no value in our world of bricks and mortar, of flesh and blood.

Since all that was uncomfortably close to the bone, let's look instead at a fourth: "The Lives of Others." The traditional disclaimer first. I don't give out the whole plot on this one, so you're safe on that count. However, the last I watched the film was a few months back, and, as I'm on vacation, my copy is thousands of kilometres away. So I may get a couple of plot points and quotes wrong; but then, you don't really come here for authenticity, do you?

The film is set in East Germany, a few years before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Its citizens are subjected to scarcely believable levels of monitoring by its secret police, the Stasi. One of the more prominent of citizens is Georg Dreyman, the playwright. We're told that he's perhaps the only writer who's both popular in the West and not a subversive. Indeed, while we never see him openly supporting the ideology of the oppressive regime, and has several friends who are subversives, he seems to have no opinion on politics. One of his friends, so exasperated by this, screams at him: "You're not human if you don't take a stand!"

He lives with his girlfriend, the lovely Christa-Maria Sieland. She's an acclaimed actress, who's just picked up an unwelcome - but very powerful - admirer, the minister Bruno Hempf. Hempf, despite all his other flaws, is a man of great self awareness, and knows that in a straight fight with Dreyman for the affections of Miss Sieland, his chances aren't too good. Fortunately, he has the Stasi at his disposal, and sets agent Gerd Wiesler the task of finding some dirt on Dreyman.

Wiesler is as efficient and cold-blooded as they come. Where he differs from his superiors is that he genuinely believes in communism, and everything that he does is in his fanatical devotion to the cause, and not for personal gain.  His interest in Dreyman isn't the career furtherment that would come with pleasing Hempf, but the chance of rooting out a dissident, which is what he suspects Dreyman is. And so, he and an assistant, having bugged Dreyman's flat to the inch, set up station in the attic of the apartment building. The two of them take 12-hour shifts to monitor Dreyman round-the-clock.

Dreyman being the apolitical man that he is, gives Wiesler virtually nothing to hang on him. But slowly, the two artists' world of music, literature and love snakes its way past his defences. Wiesler isn't a man who says much, and even if he were, loner that he is, there's no one he could confide in. Showing his gradual transformation, therefore, is a job brilliantly done. If there's one scene that underlines the emergence of the new Wiesler, it's the one of him reading a poem of Brecht's that he picked up from Dreyman's apartment. Perhaps it makes him realise that nothing lasts forever, not even their stern Republic, and that it is futile ruining innocent lives trying to defend it. Or maybe he finds the idea of saving a frail cloud from being blown away by the wind more interesting than keeping the walls of a fortress - one that may claim to protect the ideals he lives for, but has men as Hempf at its heart - in order.

His new-found compassion is just in time, too. The suicide of a close friend who had been blacklisted by the government, and maybe his discovery of Christa's affair with Hempf, forces Dreyman to leap down off his fence. And Wiesler  must now choose between doing his duty and following his conscience. I will spoil the movie no further for you than say that the first half of the movie struck me as taut political thriller, and the second half as deeply affecting melodrama. (I watched it just after I discovered Almodovar, and couldn't help feel that the second half had a very Almodovar-esque feel to it, and was also rounded off, like many of the Spaniard's films, with a sublime, punchy ending. My companion for the screening, who hates Almodovar - and loves this film - told me very emphatically, though, that I'm a dolt and Very Mistaken.)

There is this scene where Dreyman, playing a piece of music titled "Sonata for a Good Man," asks, "Can anyone who's heard this music - I mean truly heard it - really be a bad person?" The inspiration for the film, apparently, was a quote from Lenin that if he listened to Beethoven's Appassionata more often, then he wouldn't have the heart to bash people's heads in, and finish the revolution. The director, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, says, "I suddenly had this image in my mind of a person sitting in a depressing room with earphones on his head and listening in to what he supposes is the enemy of the state and the enemy of his ideas, and what he is really hearing is beautiful music that touches him."

Of course, no movie's going to change your life in a couple of hours - unless you be a fruitcake of the highest order. But given time, the wand of cinema isn't quite so imperceptible. "A film is a ribbon of dreams," said Orson Welles. "The camera is much more than a recording apparatus; it is a medium via which messages reach us from another world that is not ours and that brings us to the heart of a great secret. Here magic begins."

Before waxing eloquent of magic, let's acknowledge the flip side: magic cuts both ways. As my mishearing* of these lines goes, "If God can be for us, He can also be against us." If cinema has the power to shape us, to define us, and to give us beauty, then can it also not rot us from the inside? But then again, to quote the very wise Billy Loomis, "Now Sid, don't you blame the movies. Movies don't create psychos; movies make psychos more creative!" And how can that be such a bad thing? Even here, cinema does a service.

In my darker moods, I feel I live in a world as of the Wraiths**; but unlike them who live in shadows, what I know is ceaseless white light. A world of fluorescent lights, white marble spotless clean, and bright-blue swivel chairs. A world shielded by the air-conditioning and the tinted glass from the race of bipeds outside - that dangerous place of nights and dawns and dusks. A world of polite smiles and vicious emails. Of allegiances and hatreds that burn brightly, and then inevitably flicker and harden into apathy once you spy the cracks in their walls - but not before, for the briefest time, you feel pity, affection even; and you see that they're no better off than you, that they too are merely wraiths as yourself, and that they once belonged to that race beyond the glass.

This being the world I sometimes find myself in, how can I not love a movie as this one? - that tells me that no matter how far down the rabbit hole I've gone, there's always hope. And that we do not really need great talents, or herculean effort, to pull ourselves out; a little taste, patience enough, and the tiniest bit of courage will do. That is the message of this film. And that is the hope of all who sit in a darkened hall, waiting for that beam of light.

All right, enough of cheek and tongue. Ingmar Bergman will now lend some gravity with: "Film as dream, film as music. No art passes our conscience in the way film does, and goes directly to our feelings, deep down into the dark rooms of our souls."

There are many films that strike me as more imaginative, and many also as better crafted. But no other film has managed to reach down into the dark rooms of my soul as this one has. I've seen it several times now: twice in a hall, with hundreds of other people; other times with just one or two friends; and then, sometimes, alone at home. For me, the last is the only way to watch it. If I could use the inch-perfect ending of the film, and borrow the words before that memorable freeze frame, "This is for me."

*I've since found out that this is called a Mondegreen. And not all that I mishear are improvements over underwhelming Bible quotes, either. "If love is a red dress, well, hang me in rags," makes more sense and, I suspect, is more lyrical than what I heard it as: "If love is a red dress, then hand me earwax."

**I've been reading "The Lord of the Rings" for over a month-and-a-half now, and have reached only the middle, yet. So, in all likelihood, I'll be inflicting my "try too hard to be Tolkien" variations on you for a few months more...


missjane said...

This post is a bit of a roller-coaster ride of dark and light and hopeful dusk. Moody, were we?

It sent me off on a lovely, dark and deep adventure into Brechtian poems. They made me want to write essays, a weird and slightly sad response I have to some things. I should've turned it into a post, shouldn't I?

Anyway, among other things, your references to the film-as-dream reminded me of Me Cheeta as that is a recurring image - the actors dreaming the movies.

"We enacted the dream and, as a kind of byproduct of converting the dream into the past, the cameras gave us our souls. They poured soul over us and if they gave you enough of it you started to become an Immortal. Once the dream was in the past, it was considered moving ... and moviegoers would rush in their millions to live in it rather than the present. Essentially, our business was selling past dreams and we were the dreamers."

And finally (with the usual disclaimers) 'enough of cheek and tongue' is lovely and I may steal it. I have a sneaking suspicion that you say such things as a bet each way; we can believe that you're being cynical, or lightly humourous, or deceptively deep or pretty much anything else that suits us, and nod happily in agreement with your perspicacity.

Rohan said...

Thank you, Jane - I think. :)

My flu-addled brain cannot claim to have understood that quote, but it appreciates it enough to place Me Cheeta right at the top of the books I have to buy!

Anonymous said...

Nice.. Even i loved the movie..

Wonderful quotes included too :)
Ur a bangalorean, cool!