Listening in on other people’s private conversations and how that affects the listener as much as the people who are being spied upon — that’s what both these films share in common. In the movie-world we live in now, populated by sequels and slasher films, both of these thoughtful explorations have so much going on inside the character’s heads that your own mind may explode just thinking about them. This is a good thing, and it’s going to be hard to declare a winner, but here we go…
You may have heard of “The Lives of Others” simply because it’s been nominated for an Oscar as Outstanding Foreign Film. I haven’t seen all the others, but this one is so incredibly good, I’m rooting for it all the way. The film is set in 1984 East Germany which was then a Soviet bloc communist-totalitarian state. It feels like Orwell’s “1984,” but the world it re-creates really, truly happened. It’s a film that strikes close to my heart because I make my living writing and the plot here concerns a playwright who falls under the surveillance web of the Stasi secret police. The characters are all completely realized, you understand what everyone is about, and you feel the claustrophobia and paranoia in a palpable way. [The great actor Ulrich Muhe who played the conflicted Stassi agent you see above passed away since our original review, in July 2007, of stomach cancer at the age of 54.]
The Defending Champion
Back in 1974 when Francis Ford Coppola directed “The Conversation”, we were in the middle of Watergate and the feeling that the Nixon White House definitely wasn’t thinking about our civil liberties. The idea that we could be bugged was self-obvious. Just ask the Democratic party. This film features a bravura performance by an emerging Gene Hackman as Harry Caul, a supposed genius at the art of surveillance. This is a thrill to re-watch because, for example, Robert DuVall plays the director of a large corporation whose assistant is Harrison Ford, all of whom look, well, nearly thirty-five years younger.
There’s no question that these are both great films. If you’re thinking, though, that “The Lives of Others” won’t be easy to watch because it’s in German, don’t let that affect you. Ten minutes into it, and you won’t even notice. It sucks you in completely. “The Conversation”, however, has almost been undermined by the fame that some of its actors have achieved, making it feel less real. “Lives” makes me feel like I am eavesdropping on the lives of these characters as much as HGW XX/7, the Stasi agent.
“The Conversation”, shot in its own time, now feels a little dated, even though its theme is timeless and, you could argue, as important as ever. But “The Lives of Others” re-creates the police state perfectly in every way you could imagine. It is not flawless, but it is very nearly so. This one goes to our friends overseas in Germany because they have made a movie about their country that is a cautionary tale for all of us.