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KFF: Notes on a Scandal & The Lives of Others

A quick date check on my movie listings will reveal that I cheated a bit on my film festival attendance. The chaos of personal life prompted me to skip Notes on a Scandal in favor of a DVD viewing at home a few days later (after watching The Lives of Others at the end of the festival). Unfortunately, today is merely a brief lull between storms so we shall see if I can squeeze out a few comments on the two movies before things get hectic for another week.

Notes on a Scandal

What a deliciously wicked little story of obsession, deception and malice this is. Notes on a Scandal is smartly written, outstandingly performed and full of dark glee. The result is riveting and decadent.

Barbara (Dame Judi Dench) is a veteran schoolteacher with no illusions about the banality of her life. She spends her days enduring the people around her, students and fellow faculty alike, and records her impressions of it all during the evening. Her observations (provided via voice-over) are caustic, cynical and embittered ruminations enlivened by a droll and sardonic wit. This is her defense against all of the disappointment and disillusionment life seems to have thrown her way.

As the story begins, a new art teacher, Sheba (Cate Blanchette), has joined the faculty. Although Barbara’s comments are as acerbic as ever regarding the new arrival, her tone and her surreptitious side-long glances show that she is more than a little intrigued. Before long they have struck up a friendship. But when Barbara discovers that Sheba is having an affair with a 15-year old student, things take an ugly turn.

Barbara is obsessed with Sheba, and uses their shared secret to cruelly manipulate her “friend.” Sheba is obsessed with her student, and risks everything that is important in her life on their doomed fling. The result is an examination of perverted, destructive love that is every bit as startling in its depiction as Nabokov’s Lolita and as powerful in its themes as C.S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces (although it is possible I do all three an injustice by the comparison).

In any case, Dench’s performance alone is worth the price of admission. Like all such characters (Travis Bickle of Taxi Driver, for instance), Barbara is easy to identify with, even while we are repulsed by her. Her familiarity makes us both sympathetic and uncomfortable. Like Bickle, she is an outsider who longs for human connection, but has no conception of a healthy or normal way to make contact. When she is most like herself she pushes people away. Dench conveys pure evil with a tinge of heartbreaking sadness that is almost impossible to detect.

The climax of all this is loud and spectacular. Devastating consequences fly in all directions, but for some characters there is a comforting hint of redemption, though it will be difficult to obtain. The ending, however, caught me completely off-guard. It struck the perfect note, and my darker side couldn’t quite supress an ironic cackle as the screen went black.

The Lives of Others

The German winner of this year’s Best Foreign Film award has been, and continues to be, the talk of the town. Everyone seems to have something to say about it, and it continues to generate news and thoughtful considerations all over the internet. Even without all the buzz, I would have been looking for a chance to see it. I absolutely loved Water and Pan’s Labyrinth, and I wanted a look at the movie that shut them out.

In 1980s East Berlin, Hauptmann Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe), a Stasi (secret police) agent, is tasked with the surveillance of popular playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) and his girlfriend, actress Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck). As Wiesler becomes increasingly familiar with their most intimate values, struggles and ideals, he slowly begins to sympathize with them. And as Dreyman’s activites become subversive, Wiesler is drawn to put his own career, and possibly even his life, at risk to protect his target.

Mühe does excellent work, navigating his character’s unlikely transformation in a way that almost sells it (more on that in a moment). His performance puts a human face on the vast, inhuman machine required to keep scrupulous tabs on an entire population. The very idea is staggering, both in principle and in scope. What sort of man would such work for such a sytem? Mühe provides us with a glimpse.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of The Lives of Others is its close observation of human nature under intense moral pressure. A corrupt bureaucrat sets out to ruin a romantic rival under the pretext of monitoring party loyalty. A man who loves his country and believes in its form of government must consider how best to reconcile his patriotism with the political misfortune of a friend and mentor. A woman is forced to choose between betraying a neighbor and sacrificing her daughter’s future. A thousand such stories, a hundred thousand even, are hinted at, each with their own tragic crises of conscience (although we catch only glimpses of a handful here).

This is a taut, well-told story which gives us a great deal to reflect on in its touching quiet moments. The fatal flaw for me was that I was not sold on the premise, and because I was not sold I was not absorbed. I was so distracted by whether I could believe that a hardened fanatic like Wiesler was capable of such an abrupt and total transformation, that I couldn’t fully appreciate the effects of that transformation. The fix could be something as simple as further development of the character’s background, but within the context of the movie I could not account for Wiesler’s change of heart.

The whole thing puts me in mind of Life is Beautiful, a movie I abhor more deeply every time I see it because in its rush to extol the beauty of life and love sacrifice, it glosses glibly over harsh realities which really ought to be inescapable. Good-hearted as its message may be, it is so fantastically dishonest in the communicating of it that it cheapens the very real horror of its subject (the Holocaust). The Lives of Others does not deal so carelessly with East Germany before the wall came down, but it all seems a little too easy. The danger and evil lack a sense of immediate urgency (despite all the suspense and excitement).

Perhaps I am simply being difficult, but I think I would have given the award to Water, after all.

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~ by Jared on May 10, 2007.

One Response to “KFF: Notes on a Scandal & The Lives of Others

  1. Ha! Yes. I hated Life is Beautiful. Well, after all, I think you were there when I first saw it.

    Timothy Garton Ash, who has a certain amount of firsthand experience with East German surveillance, has a fascinating review/rumination on The Lives of Others in the NYRB. You should check it out.

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