Nestled deep in the postcard-perfect French Alps, the Grande Chartreuse is considered one of the world’s most ascetic monasteries. In 1984, German filmmaker Philip Gröning wrote to the Carthusian order for permission to make a documentary about them. They said they would get back to him. Sixteen years later, they were ready. Gröning, sans crew or artificial lighting, lived in the monks’ quarters for six months—filming their daily prayers, tasks, rituals and rare outdoor excursions. This transcendent, closely observed film seeks to embody a monastery, rather than simply depict one—it has no score, no voiceover and no archival footage. What remains is stunningly elemental: time, space and light. One of the most mesmerizing and poetic chronicles of spirituality ever created, INTO GREAT SILENCE dissolves the border between screen and audience with a total immersion into the hush of monastic life. More meditation than documentary, it’s a rare, transformative theatrical experience for all.
Despite its quiet power -- or, perhaps, because of it -- it is not a movie for everyone. The movie has such a deep, meditative quality that it requires a great deal from its viewers -- the ability to surrender to its subtle storytelling rhythms and to its sonic palette of melting snow, falling rain, and the noises of the monastery ... church-bells, sandals on flagstones, the shutting of old wooden doors.
The film has its weaknesses. One is the unusually -- and inexplicably -- poor English subtitles. To take one example, the German Du hast mich verfuehrt, Herr! Und ich, ich habe mich verfuehren lassen ("You seduced me Lord! And I, I let myself be seduced.") is translated as "You seduced me, Lord! And I was seduced." This translation is not only inaccurate, but also ignores the element of willing self-sacrifice that the German text underscores. Particularly in a film in which a few quoted passages are repeated for rhythmic effect, such inelegant mistakes merely mar the film's impact.
Another weakness -- though one that wouldn't, I suspect, matter as much to religious believers -- is that the one instance in which a monk breaks the mantle of silence of the film, speaking in his own voice (as opposed to reading from canonical texts), is one in which a blind monk, near the end of the film, comments on his impending death in a mixture of stoic and Christian dogma. ("I am happy that God chose to blind me; He must have done so for the good of my soul.") Even for religious believers, this sequence will offer no new insights into the feeling of solace that comes from religious conviction. It only serves to freight the monk's words with a weight they're unable to bear -- unnecessarily, as the film would be far stronger, and more interesting, without the scene.
For those with the patience to enter the world of the movie, however, the experience offers much of lasting value: cinematographic still-lives of stunning beauty; daily necessities reduced to their barest essence -- a slice of apple, a glass of water, a hunk of bread; the dance of the seasons and the elements -- water, fire, earth, and air, now frozen, now fluid; and, most centrally, the quiet power of witnessing lives devoted solely to simplicity, community, and contemplation.
Not much in today's Arts section of the NY Times ... other than the promise of a very interesting film, Joachim Trier's "Reprise," discussed in Manohla Dargis's review of the New Directors/New Films festival.
According to Dargis, "Reprise" is a "galvanizing first feature [that] traces the parallel adventures of two best friends whose twinned literary aspirations and everyday lives take the shape of a punk-rock bildungsroman."
In an interview with Trier -- a two-time Norwegian skateboard champion -- and the film's author, Eskil Vogt, at Twitch, here, Trier describes the movie's story and the filmic vocabulary that he employs in telling that story this way:
The way people talk, the relationships, and ... an attitude, I think. It’s not random why we chose to tell the story in this way, we wanted to sort of mirror the way the minds of these young guys work. We wanted to express their temperament through form; someone yesterday called it “dirty formalism” which I quite like. Another journalist called it “Antonioni on amphetamines”. Such a huge compliment. I think it’s the combination of the music, and these characters that we know really well and the things we care about: friendship; dreams and ambition; and memory and identity.
The way in which Trier and Vogt address questions of memory and identity sounds particularly arresting. As Dargis notes,
The title of Erik’s novel, “Prosopopoeia,” which comes from the Greek and means making a face or a mask, offers a strong clue as to what Mr. Trier and Mr. Vogt are after: the word prosopopoeia figures importantly in the work of the literary theorist Paul de Man, for whom it is a dominant rhetorical trope of autobiography.
“We assume that life produces the autobiography as an act produces its consequences,” writes Mr. de Man, “but can we not suggest, with equal justice, that the autobiographical project may itself produce and determine life?”
Even many of those Germans who aren't particularly culturally literate themselves like to refer to their country as "das Land der Dichter und Denker" (the country of poets and thinkers). Although, unfortunately, for much of the 20th century the description "Land der Richter und Henker" (judges/executioners) would perhaps be more apt, nevertheless the former description does speak to a very attractive feature of the German social landscape, its confidence that to be a land of poets and thinkers would be worthwhile.
(Imagine an American calling the United States a country of poets and thinkers! This is not to say that there aren't great poets and thinkers in the United States; it's simply that Americans who aren't culturally literate would interpret that description either as a falsehood or an insult, whereas those who are would interpret it, at best, ironically.)
All of this is prelude to a discussion of Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's outstanding film, "The Lives of Others." Many will -- and have -- interpreted the film either as a penetrating dissection of the levels of deception and soul-devouring violations of privacy that went to the core of the German Democratic Republic or as a tragic love story of innocents who -- to echo a line from the dramatist-protagonist of the film, Dreymann -- are crushed under the wheel of that inhuman system.
There is another way to read the film, however ... not against those other two interpretations, but alongside them. The film, its loving portrayal of those shabbily elegant, art-filled, book-lined, music-echoing apartments in Prenzlauer Berg, the writers' colony in the center of East Berlin, is a paean to the ideal of a land of poets and thinkers.
One such apartment is that of the playwright Dreymann. Unbeknownst to him, his apartment and his life have been infiltrated and interrogated by the Stasi (Staatssicherheitspolizei, the State Security Police) in the person of Stasi captain -- and surveillance and interrogation expert -- Gerd Wiesler. The contrast between Dreyman's apartment and Wiesler's utterly different, sterile, modern apartment, one in which only the television serves as a source of distraction, underscores, certainly, the emptiness of the life of a servant of the totalitarian state that was the GDR.
However, I couldn't help looking beyond the particular political circumstances in which the film takes place to see an even more universal message. How many apartments in 1984 West Berlin, or in the unified, utterly westernized, Berlin of today, parallel Wiesler's apartment in being devoid of culture? How many people, like Wiesler, lead lives, at work and at home, of quiet desperation? The underlying, redemptive message of the film is that culture has the power to change lives -- that it's the work of poets and thinkers that gives our lives depth and meaning.
One reason that non-German-speakers might have ignored the more universal themes within the film is that class subtleties that existed even within the GDR, portrayed through the actors' accents, cannot be transmitted through subtitles. Thus, Wiesler's assistant in the surveillance, Udo, immune to the effects of an exposure to Dreymann's world, speaks with the broad Berlin accent of the working class, both East and West -- a seemingly intentional choice, given that the actor who played Udo, Charly Hübner, was born in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, an area not known for a Berliner dialect.
Such subtle clues are not the only ones that indicate that it would be a mistake to inoculate ourselves against the force of the film's argument by interpreting it as limited with respect to the historical phenomenon that was the GDR. It ought not escape notice, for example, that the minister who ordered Wiesler's surveillance of Dreymann in the first place, Minister Bruno Hempf, seems to have survived the transition to a unified Germany quite well; he's among the well-dressed audience members of the performance of Dreymann's play in 1991, after unification.
The film is the 33-year-old von Donnersmarck's first, and, in a few places, it shows. The long shots of the Stasi workers' first approach to Dreyman's apartment building in order to install surveillance equipment provide just one example; cinematographically, those shots display an awkward lack of depth of field. Such criticisms, however, are insignificant in comparison to the magnificence of von Donnersmarck's achievement. (Writing in The Weekly Standard, John Podhoretz invoked Citizen Kane in speaking of the impressiveness of von Donnersmarck's debut; that's a bit of an overstatement, but it's high praise indeed that it really is only a bit of an overstatement.)
One would be remiss in closing a discussion of the film's greatness were one to ignore the consistently exceptional quality of the actors. As Georg Dreyman, Sebastian Koch recalls a young Bruno Ganz, both in his easy, endearing physical presence and in his prodigious talent. Martina Gedeck, who plays Christa-Maria Sieland, Dreyman's leading lady and romantic partner, is outstanding, recalling a younger Anjelica Huston circa "Crimes and Misdemeanors."
The dramatic fulcrum of the film, however, is the Stasi captain Gerd Wiesler. Von Donnersmarck has acknowledged that the idea for "The Lives of Others" came to him when he recalled a statement on Beethoven's "Appasionata," attributed by Maxim Gorky to Lenin. According to Gorky, Lenin said:
I know of nothing better than the Appassionata and could listen to it every day. What astonishing, superhuman music! It always makes me proud, perhaps naively so, to think that people can work such miracles. ... But I can't listen to music very often. It affects my nerves. I want to say sweet, silly things, and pat the heads of people who, living in a filthy hell, can create such beauty.
In portraying Wiesler, Ulrich Mühe has crafted a performance that is absolutely remarkable. The subtlety with which he indicates the way in which his exposure to the lives of Dreyman and Sieland and their companions, the poets, musicians, and writers filling the book-lined apartments of Prenzlauer Berg with discussions of art and ideas, has affected his nerves, transporting him from the sterile hell of his existence, is yet another testament to the transformative power of art, and is the astonishing, superhuman miracle at the center of this miraculous filmic achievement.
Many who've reviewed "Zodiac" have emphasized its continuities with earlier David Fincher projects -- the virtuosic camera movement, put to such excellent effect in the many shots of the SF Chronicle newsroom or the SFPD offices in "Zodiac," was already evident in "Se7en" and "Panic Room," the creepy interiors of the subjects under investigation, their mise en scène contributing so perfectly to the growing atmosphere of dread as the investigation in "Zodiac" devolves from dead-end to dead-end, almost stole the show from Brad Pitt, Morgan Freeman, and Kevin Spacey in "Se7en."
What has been underappreciated, however, has been the way in which -- unlike his earlier movies -- "Zodiac" succeeds where few other serial-killer films have in portraying the callous, senseless cruelty of the killer's crimes. So many serial-killer films (including, to some extent, "Se7en," or "The Silence of the Lambs" and its sequels) make the killer so fascinating that he becomes an object of identification for the audience -- a modern-day Miltonic Satan. Particularly in the portrayal of the second murder of the film (whose details I'll avoid so as not to spoil it for those who have not yet seen it), however, Fincher demonstrates the horror of the crime, while managing -- through a masterful, flat, filmic style that underscores the unintelligibility of the Zodiac's crime -- to prevent any inadvertent identification of the audience with the killer.
The other aspect of the film that works particularly well is the way that it works against type. The traditional serial-killer narrative is just that -- a narrative, with all of the narrative conventions of a developmental arc. The emotional highs of this film, however, are all front-loaded; what follows the series of murders with which the Zodiac killer made his name are years of fruitless investigation and frustrated leads. Unlike other films, "Zodiac" thus recapitulates for the viewer the feeling of drowning in the amassed evidence, of not knowing one's way through, of following out blind alleys, and investing one's credence in misleading clues. The viewer feels what it is like to become so overwhelmed by the hopelessness of finding a solution that one might be willing to avoid contravening evidence -- or even to hope that the police would even manufacture evidence -- only so that the story can achieve a satisfactory conclusion.
Germany wouldn't be Germany if the success of one of its own at the Oscars -- this year, the victory of Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's "Das Leben der Anderen" ("The Lives of Others") in the Best Foreign Film category -- didn't result in immediate controversy in all of the major newspapers.
Thus, to take one notable example, the civil rights activist Werner Schulz claims, in Die Welt, that the film does not deserve a prize, due to its cavalier attitude towards historical fact:
Steven Spielberg would've been picked to pieces worldwide if he had dreamed up Oskar Schindler and his list. Roman Polanski would've suffered similarly with the "Pianist" had he behaved the same. Iit seems that one can freely and imaginatively play with the history of the GDR with no attachment to historical authenticity. Thus a tough guy, a specialist for surveillance and a Stasi-leader, suddenly becomes a protector of dissidents.
On the other hand, Stefan Reinecke defends the film in today's taz:
"Das Leben der Anderen" is an intimate piece, far removed from the aesthetic of domination. It dissolves the cliche of the Stasi -- without whitewashing -- and makes possible a play of identifications. That is the key to success. Perhaps the naivete and obsessive curiosity of a bystander like Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck -- a West German who was 16 when the Wall fell -- was necessary in order to abandon the well-trodden path of the GDR-Stasi theme. Where, then, is the problem? In 2006 "Das Leben der Anderen" was not a German entry in the Berlin Film Festival. Why not? Why is it so difficult to recognize what is positive about this film? True, director von Donnersmarck is blessed with a level of self-confidence that is difficult to distinguish from hubris. But that's not the point. It has to do with a cultural-critical reflex that has long ago become routine -- namely that success must be mistrusted. A German thriller that also tells a political story is virtually guaranteed widespread suspicion.
- “Babel” (Paramount and Paramount Vantage) An Anonymous Content/Zeta Film/Central Films Production; Alejandro González Iñárritu, Jon Kilik and Steve Golin, Producers
- “The Departed” (Warner Bros.) A Warner Bros. Pictures Production; Graham King, Producer
- “Letters from Iwo Jima” (Warner Bros.) A DreamWorks Pictures/Warner Bros. Pictures Production; Clint Eastwood, Steven Spielberg and Robert Lorenz, Producers
- “Little Miss Sunshine” (Fox Searchlight) A Big Beach/Bona Fide Production; David T. Friendly, Peter Saraf and Marc Turtletaub, Producers
- “The Queen” (Miramax, Pathé and Granada) A Granada Production; Andy Harries, Christine Langan and Tracey Seaward, Producers
And the award goes to ... "Letters from Iwo Jima," Clint Eastwood, Steven Spielberg and Robert Lorenz, Producers. I loved both "Little Miss Sunshine" and "The Queen," but neither of them have the scope or ambition to be best pictures of the year, in my opinion. "Letters from Iwo Jima" does ... and it is a remarkable cinematic achievement -- as well as being by far Eastwood's best movie since "Unforgiven."
- “Babel” (Paramount and Paramount Vantage) Alejandro González Iñárritu
- “The Departed” (Warner Bros.) Martin Scorsese
- “Letters from Iwo Jima” (Warner Bros.) Clint Eastwood
- “The Queen” (Miramax, Pathé and Granada) Stephen Frears
- “United 93” (Universal and StudioCanal) Paul Greengrass
And the winner is ... Martin Scorsese, for "The Departed." He's the Susan Lucci of the Academy Awards for Christ's sake! Enough is enough. Give the man his statue already.
- “Babel” (Paramount and Paramount Vantage) Written by Guillermo Arriaga
- “Letters from Iwo Jima” (Warner Bros.) Screenplay by Iris Yamashita, Story by Iris Yamashita & Paul Haggis
- “Little Miss Sunshine” (Fox Searchlight) Written by Michael Arndt
- “Pan’s Labyrinth” (Picturehouse) Written by Guillermo del Toro
- “The Queen” (Miramax, Pathé and Granada) Written by Peter Morgan
The winner is ... "Letters from Iwo Jima;" screenplay by Iris Yamashita, story by Iris Yamashita and Paul Haggis. I've written already about how much, surprisingly, I loved "The Queen," but "Letters from Iwo Jima" was brilliant.
"Letters" is also so clearly not a Paul Haggis production -- for example, in the way that a scene in which a mother's letter to a captured American soldier is read by his Japanese captors, a scene intended to underscore the common humanity of soldiers on both sides of the conflict, is then saved from maudlin or treacly sentimentality by a scene that follows shortly after, in which a Japanese deserter meets his death in an event that is surprising in it's stark, youthfully callous murderousness.
(An interview with Yamashita on NPR's "Here and Now" is here.)