Monday, February 25, 2008

Eastern Europe

I didn't really set out to see a clump of movies about the fall of communism or life under those regimes; I was just skimming through the HD offerings on Blockbuster, then sticking buried treasure nominees in the queue as well, and stuff just happened to land this way.

Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 28 January 2008 in Jay's Living Room (rental Blu-ray Disc)

The people I know who like movies but not quite enough to be much more than first-weekenders were shocked when The Lives of Others won the Academy Award for Foreign Language Film over Pan's Labyrinth. After all, they'd heard of Pan's Labyrinth, maybe even seen it, and the logic is that if it could play theaters before being nominated despite having subtitles, it must be superior. That's not always the case; The Lives of Others needed a visibility boost in America not because it wasn't good enough, but because what makes it so good is tied up with it being foreign to us.

Some would argue that what initially seemed foreign is now becoming familiar. The film opens with Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe), an officer in East Germany's internal security force (the Stasi) interrogating a subject and then lecturing a class on how to read the subject's responses. Afterward, his friend and colleague Anton Grubitz (Ulrich Tukur) comes to him with a new project - a popular playwright, Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch). Georg has avoided upsetting the government, despite having activist friends; Minister Bruno Hempf (Thomas Thieme) mainly wants him out of the way so that he can have their mutual lover (Martina Gedeck) to himself.

While the jackbooted thugs and dictators are the most visible threats in a totalitarian regime, it's the men like Gerd who hold it together. Gerd is a small, gray man who is very good at his jobs of surveillance and interrogation because he doesn't get emotionally attached to anything. The Gerd Weislers of the world function as cogs in a machine, and we see that in Mühe's early scenes. We're not sure just what it is that makes this time different for him. It doesn't seem to be ideology, not even that of a true believer disgusted by Hempf's using him for personal benefit. For whatever reason, Gerd gets attached, and Mühe is interesting to watch. Gerd only briefly comes out of his shell, and Mühe is careful not to portray finding people he cares about as a liberating experience - he remains the same small, gray man he was at the start, even if he's a little wiser.

Are Anton and Christa-Marie fascinating enough to create this sort of change in a veteran Stasi agent? Maybe. Koch and Gedeck don't overdo it with the charisma, but there is a subdued warmth to the pair that is appealing. Part of why the film works is that even though their characters are artists and intellectuals who could be given larger-than-life personalities, and they have to be remarkable people to attract the government's attention, they feel very relatable, not so big and loud as to push Gerd into a defensive position. On the other side, Thieme and Tukur are a bit larger than life while also being all too familiar as people whose ambition has pushed them past Gerd despite his being better at his job.

Writer/director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck has something of Gerd's meticulousness to him. There's a section in the middle of the film where Anton is trying to smuggle an article on how there are officially no suicides in the DDR to the west, and it's a genuine delight to look at how the filmmaker orchestrates it: Anton and his friends carefully test to make sure they aren't being observed, but Gerd's unknown loyalty to him causes them to do things that may very well get them caught, and Gerd must then attempt to set things right in a way that tips neither side to his activities. It's a delicate three-sided dance, and von Donnersmarck never slips up even when his characters do.

He also makes sure to include plenty of the nuts and bolts stuff about how the Stasi spied on their people and how the subjects would attempt to evade detection. It's quality "how things work" material, and I love how invasive it feels - while today's bugging technology is ultra-miniaturized and wireless, what Gerd uses permeates Anton's apartment, turning his home against him and literally tethering Gerd to the place when he's wearing his headphones. Cinematographer Hagen Bagdanski appears to use a fisheye lens, adding a slight distortion to the edges of the picture that reinforces the voyeurism that's going on.

The Stasi's historic effectiveness suggests that there weren't very many who grew a conscience (if that's even what happens with Gerd). Even if it seldom happened, or couldn't have happened, it's still a fascinating story about the need for connection and how paranoia can thwart it.

Also at eFilmCritic, along with one other review

4 Luni, 3 Saptamani si 2 Zile (4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days)

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 4 February 2008 in Landmark Kendall Square #1 (first-run)

4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days manages something tricky: It handles its touchy subject matter in a way that is dispassionate but not cold. It likely won't make very many people change their opinions on abortion; I'm not even sure whether it would tend to push someone toward moderation or extremism. What's interesting about the film is less the activity at its center than the way filmmaker Christian Mungiu tells his story and what can be deduced about its participants.

Though Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) is the university student looking to terminate her pregnancy, we mainly follow Otilia (Anamaria Marinca), the friend and roommate who seems to be handling the arrangements. As the film opens, we see her making the rounds of their dorm, borrowing money and collecting items from the thriving black market . Then it's downtown to book the hotel room - no easy trick in 1980s Romania - and meet Domnu' Bebe (Vlad Ivanov), the "doctor", who seizes on the unusual way Otilia and Gabita are handling things to demand more and different payment. Meanwhile, Otilia is trying to keep a dinner date with her boyfriend Adi (Alexandru Potocean) at his mother's birthday party.

What makes 4 Weeks extraordinary is how Mungiu does such a good job giving each moment of his film equal weight. There are no music cues used to tell the audience that something is important, and the cinematography consists almost entirely of extended medium shots of Otilia; we follow her closely but don't zoom in to examine her face at specific moments. Indeed, the only time we spend much time away from her is during a scene that we might weight too heavily if we had a front-row seat. Whatever the filmmaker thinks about what's going on, he's taking great care not to impress that on the audience. He and we are just observing.

Just because he's not using a lot of cinematic tricks to highlight the drama doesn't mean that the film proceeds from start to finish with a completely level tone. It is, in its matter-of-fact way, one of the most tension-filled movies in recent memory; we're reminded early on that abortion is illegal and punished harshly in this time and place (thus the need for it to take place in a hotel room, rather than a hospital or clinic). Mungiu finds several different ways to make the audience nervous. There's the meeting between Otilia, Gabita, and Domnu' where each knows they have the ability to ruin the other, though Domnu' quickly grabs the upper hand; there's the Otilia walking around the city at night, where the audience can't help but think what a disaster it would be to get caught; there's Otilia trapped at Adi's dinner table while a phone nobody answers rings, perhaps with news from Gabita. That scene in particular is fantastic in how it tortures the audience with seemingly benign activity.

That's also the scene where we really get the full measure of what a fine performance Anamaria Marinca is turning in. We've already seen Otilia get serious after being introduced to her as cheerful and seemingly casual about things; in this scene, we see her trying to put up a cheerful, polite front even though she's clearly worried about Gabita. It's also where we learn about her, though, saying she's from the country and studying "tech" in part because she doesn't particularly want to stay there, so on top of everything else we see her getting uncomfortable at the somewhat condescending attitude Adi's educated, prosperous family has. The way the movie is shot doesn't give Marinca any place to be other than excellent, but she handles the challenge with aplomb.

Laura Vasiliu's role is smaller, though central, and her performance is interesting too. Gabita is timid, deferring to Otilia, and we're inclined to feel sorry for her; after all, she's in a rough position with no easy way out that she doesn't seem equipped to handle. Vasilu remembers that helpless isn't always cute, though, and there are times we feel as though Gabita is abusing the privilege of having a friend as good as Otilia - the weak half of the relationship controlling the strong one. Other times she seems justifiably bitter and angry at Otilia.

It's not a perfect friendship, but it's not the one-sided one it may seem like; Otilia needs someone to trust her nearly as much as Gabita needs someone to lean on. In the end, that's what this movie is really about - not abortion or communism, but the universal need for someone to help you through them.

Also at eFilmCritic, along with four other reviews

A fost sau n-a fost? (12:08 East of Bucharest)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 8 February 2008 in Jay's Living Room (rental DVD/Chlotrudis buried treasure)

Corneliu Porumboiu has an interesting question or two to ask in 12:08 East of Bucharest. He's got a nice cast playing interesting characters. What he doesn't really have is a story. You can do without, but ninety minutes is a lot of time for atmosphere and setup without a real payoff.

It's the sixteenth anniversery of the fall of communism in Romania, and Virgil Jderescu (Teodor Corban) wants to discuss his town's part in that on his televised panel show. He's having trouble finding people interested in participating, though - the revolution just isn't something that many modern day Romanians give much thought to. He winds up settling for Tiberiu Manescu (Ion Sapdaru), a college professor who was among the first protesting in the town square that day but now concerns himself with a massive bar tab among other debts, and Emanoli Piscoli (Mircea Andreescu), the old man known for playing Santa Claus at the school every Christmas. They wind up blindsided by the question Jderescu asks - was there a revolution in their town, or did they just come out until after everything had been done?

That's a hugely loaded question, one which potentially indicts the entire community for their passivity. The twenty minutes or so after Jderescu poses that question are a real-time single shot of his talk show, held through the commercial breaks so that we can see Jderescu and Manescu fight over how the latter is being treated. It's a nicely staged bit of tension, with Manescu feeling blindsided, Jderescu realizing that he has kicked over a hornets' nest, and Piscoli affably trying to smooth things over but demonstrating that age doesn't necessarily bring wisdom or expertise. The scene is contentious, but also funny - Andreescu almost always has a sort of goofy look on his face, and the poor camera work emphasizes what a small-time operation Jderescu's station is, pointing out that for all the passion Manescu and Jderescu and their callers invest, it doesn't really matter to more than a handful of people.

As clever a set piece as that show is, the movie does kind of peter out afterward. It's written like a friendship-destroying confrontation, but the beginning of the movie doesn't establish much connection between the characters. They each have their own little stories that establish who they are, but their stories are separate, intersecting mainly in how they're annoyed by children setting off fireworks. It establishes that in some ways, the town isn't very different than it was under the communists - there's still not enough to go around - but it doesn't tell us anything particularly interesting about our lead trio. It almost feels like padding. Not quite - there are some nice bits in there - but I wouldn't be shocked if Porumboiu had started from the TV broadcast and filled in around that.

It's a shame, really. There's the start of a really clever movie (or something else) in what happens once the action reaches the TV station, but the stuff Porumboiu surrounds it with isn't quite up to the same standard.

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