Well, looks like the better that I get at actually watching films, the worse I get at reviewing them. Recently I've screened three top-rate films, and would like to share some quick jots about them.
German cinema hasn't had much penetration into the American consciousness, but in watching Das Leben der Anderen (2006; Oscar, best foreign film; translated as The Lives of Others), I felt the GDR, the Stasi, and the Foucauldian tentacles of Power -- so emblematic of the former USSR/Cold War era. (The era I can't wait until 2060 to brag that I lived through!) Acronyms: GDR: German Democratic Republic; Stasi: GDR State Police.
The film a romantic beauty reminiscent of a Casablanca along with the suspense of the best political thrillers. The DVD cover tells us that Das Leben der Anderen is "the best kind of film -- the one that stays in your head," and that is very much true.
The best artistic statements have a gorgeous symmetry bringing form and content together. I recently viewed Fritz Lang's M, which melds form and content to create powerful, lasting themes. Das Leben does the same, in an equally bleary, gray urban landscape of fear. Interestingly, M is held up by a brilliant performance from Peter Lorre, while Das Leben follows Stasi true-believer HGW (played by Ulrich Mühe), who goes through a crisis of confidence as he monitors the lives of artists and government officials.
The image that I can't forget is that of HGW listening in on the deep yearnings of artists and being unable to withhold his sympathy and stay "objective."
Das Leben der Anderen deserves its top-60 billing on Internet Movie Database. When the film moved to its crescendo, I admit that I could not help but say, "That movie is so f'ing awesome." Don't waste your time on lesser works -- Das Leben awaits.
A film that will take a little bit more effort is Lolita, the Stanley Kubrick adaptation of the exquisite Vladomir Nabokov novel of the same name. While the novel offers a searing portrait of sexual exploitation and bottomless intellectual narcissism, the film has us follow poor Humbert Humbert sympathetically as his Lolita falls from his control. Nabokov wrote the screenplay, and interestingly, while the novel is about narcissism, the film version concerns obsession.
The 1962 release challenged social expectations of the time, but Kubrick admits that if he had made Lolita later on, it would have been even more challenging, a la A Clockwork Orange. Indeed, the character Dolores Haze ("Lolita") turns from prepubescent "nymphet" to zaftig teen, and Humbert seems to have an actual relationship with his object. In a way, this makes the film even more perverse. Certainly, both film and novel force us to offer our sympathy to "poor" Humbert, but the novel forces the reader to identify with a full-on pedophile-rapist, while the film offers the logic in the busty, blonde Lolita (Sue Lyon).
I've read that "the full effect of Kubrick's films are larger than one particular moment or scene," and that is true for Lolita. As with Dr. Strangelove, Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, Peter Sellers fills the screen in a way no other comedic actor has -- worth the proverbial "price of admission." And James Mason inhabits Humbert very well, but I desired from him at least a wink or two of self-conscious social code-breaking -- more evil, in a way.
Surely, for the Kubrick fan, to understand the dark comedy of his other works, one must chuckle at Humbert's faux-sadness when he accepts condolences after his wife (Lola's mother) dies -- from his bathtub:
Lolita is sly, slow-moving, and takes about as much patience as 2001: A Space Odyssey but doesn't offer the spellbinding-ness.
Try to think of your poor little Lolita all alone in the world.
You must live for her sake.
Watch Atonement (2007) for the four-minute tracking shot where director Joe Wright offers us a sweeping vision of Dunkirk, war's greatest retreat. The shot is slightly apart from the style of the rest of the film, which is nonetheless satisfactory. As you see in the picture above, Joe Wright also directed the visually stunning Pride and Prejudice, and Atonement matches its adapted novel's expanse (novel by Ian McEwan). The epilogue, where we see Briony as an aging writer, takes away from the gorgeous beauty of the WWII-era Great Britain of the majority of the film. Atonement respects its primary source enough to stay close to its master, but as Lolita shows, there is something unquantifiable that must be lost in order for an adaptation to remain true to its source.
In watching Atonement, you'll understand why it was nominated for Best Picture, and see the force of serious acting from Keira Knightly and James McAvoy, and the tracking shot is one for the ages, even if the overall film does not match that sequence.
In sum, Das Leben der Anderen can't be summed up -- one may only refer to it as a combination of Brecht and Sophocles. It's been a long time since I've watched a film and almost fully suspended my disbelief, waiting for the characters' truly human decisions.