They come out of Europe during Oscar season, wreathed in more than a dozen awards. The Lives of Others, from Germany, tells of suffering in the East during the 1980s, as supervised by the GDR’s secret police. Grbavica: The Land of My Dreams, from Bosnia-Herzegovina, tells of suffering in the 1990s during the civil war and the continuation of that suffering today. Both films are the debut features of academically trained directors in their early 30s, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck and Jasmila Zbanic. Both, I think, are pretty good. But as much as each film tells us about its subject matter, the pair tell us even more about the tastes of juries and prize committees in Europe, and their eagerness to create the next star director.
Before I go on, though, you might ask: Is it valid to generate big conclusions from so small a sample? I say the answer is yes, if you think imagination has anything to do with film. Test the method yourself, closer to home: Simply close your eyes and think like an Oscar voter.
Let’s suppose you’re a member of the Academy–that is, someone who makes a living in the mainstream American industry–and you’ve just filled in your nominating ballot for Best Picture. If you listed The Departed as your top choice, you voted for the year’s only big-studio movie that was both artistically respectable and a box-office hit. Seriously, there was just one. Had you wanted to find that combination in any other 2006 release, you would have had to pick Happy Feet.
If you nominated Letters From Iwo Jima for Best Picture, you voted for an artistically respectable big-studio picture that you wished would become a hit. Since you know Warner Bros. rushed Iwo Jima into release after the embarrassing commercial failure of Flags of Our Fathers, you’re essentially rooting for a turnaround.
If you put The Queen at the head of your ballot, you’ve decided that artistically respectable movies will have to be made by the thrifty Brits if they’re going to be viable. The best bet for American studios (or their specialty divisions) is to buy into these pictures afterward, sharing in the glory and doing a middling business (a mere $45 million gross for The Queen, as of this writing).
If you chose Babel ($27 million gross), you’ve even given up on the Brits. You just want “Hollywood” (a front in this case for a couple of canny Mexicans) to get its once-a-year spritz of Eau de Prestige.
And if you chose Little Miss Sunshine? In that case, you want to encourage people younger than Martin Scorsese to make respectable pictures and yet please the crowd; $60 million and counting for Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, on an $8 million budget! Give those kids Oscars and first-look deals! Then, in ten years, you can wonder what became of them, or else complain that they’ve directed Pirates of the Caribbean 7.
QED: A small sample can show something large. In the case of this year’s Oscar nominations, five pictures reveal the rattle-brained condition of the American movie industry, which for the most part can no longer either make art or sell it. At the top level, though, people might want to buy a little of the stuff, if someone will please tell them what it is.
Now, to return to my two-picture sample of European prizewinners: The industry that rewarded The Lives of Others and Grbavica has thereby shown itself to be entirely comfortable with art, or at least aspirations to it. Both of these pictures express an almost pious faith in music and literature–and, by extension, film–to awaken the conscience and heal wounds. This isn’t a theme you encounter in the average American Oscar nominee.
But then, neither does the average Oscar nominee pretend that art’s transformative power has been set in motion simply because it’s been invoked. In this year’s Best Picture candidates, problems that were intractable stay that way: Soldiers who fight against impossible odds are defeated, losers desperately chase after success and fail, crowned heads grudgingly bow before the people’s will (while self-styled reformers learn to bow before crowned heads), and the only creature to survive Boston’s corruption is a rat. Even Babel, with its urge to tie up the whole global package with a shiny ribbon, acknowledges that some things in the box aren’t a gift.
Whether from tough-mindedness or cynicism, this year’s Academy voters have been drawn to films that offer no easy resolution. The Europeans, by contrast, give prizes to feel-good art about mass murder, rape and police repression.
What’s going on with The Lives of Others and Grbavica?
Set in autumnal East Berlin during the mid-1980s, along colorless and deserted streets, within the rooms of a cluttered old apartment and (most impressive of all) in the actual offices formerly occupied by the Stasi, The Lives of Others is a drama about two men who don’t know each other but are both struggling with their conscience, and doing it while obsessing over the same woman.
Georg (Sebastian Koch), a square-jawed 40-ish hunk with flowing movie-star hair, is East Germany’s most valued playwright, being the only one who is also read in the West. Though troubled by the silencing of his friends and fellow artists, Georg is a committed socialist who keeps his criticisms within approved limits–which means he might as well be silent. As reward, he gets his plays produced (though not as he’d like them to be) while enjoying the love of his lead actress, Christa-Maria (Martina Gedeck), a beauty who is robust enough to look convincing when cast as a factory worker and yet can boogie fetchingly at an opening-night party, where East Germany’s hottest combo plays jazz that’s twenty years out of date.
Georg is loyal to the state, and life for the most part is good; but his happiness reads as arrogance when spied by a spare and lonely Stasi captain, Gerd Wiesler. Played by the astonishing Ulrich Mühe, who for this role must convey depths of feeling with a repertory of the tiniest twitches and flickers, Wiesler is a level-eyed man with receding close-cropped hair. He looks something like Kevin Spacey, if Spacey had been bitten by a rat and was turning into Max Schreck. When ordered to begin full surveillance of Georg, this severe man sets to work with controlled fury, willingly sitting all day in the attic above Georg’s apartment and listening to his every move. “They unwrap presents,” Wiesler types into his report after Georg’s birthday party, “then presumably have intercourse.” You hear Wiesler’s anger, and envy, clacking in every keystroke.
What happens next you already know. Wiesler, infatuated with Christa-Maria, begins wanting to protect her and the man she loves. Meanwhile Georg, shocked by the destruction of a cherished colleague, at last makes plans to speak out. His struggle is the easy one. The hard choices are made by Wiesler (who must play a double game) and by Christa-Maria, who has attracted the attentions of a heavily panting member of the party’s central committee. As this tubby villain pressures her, under the shocked surveillance of Wiesler, The Lives of Others turns into a melodrama about a woman tied to the railroad tracks–or, rather, to a commissar’s crotch.
I like melodramas. I also like the way this one downplays the dashing, conventional hero in favor of zipped-up Wiesler, who has understood (rather late, I think) that his bosses have no principles, only power. It doesn’t bother me at all that the movie makes its Stasi captain into a victim of the regime, and even a rescuer. But then, The Lives of Others also makes Wiesler an artist of sorts. It uses a piece of piano music to convert him–see, he’s sensitive!–and by the end has positioned him as Georg’s ideal reader. If you think of Georg as a surrogate for the film’s director, then the whole misty-eyed audience is redeemed at the end, not through anything it has done but merely through watching this display of artfulness by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck.
How he loves us! How we–some of us, anyhow–have rushed to thank him!
Grbavica: The Land of My Dreams is an altogether tougher piece of work. At times, it almost put me in mind of Fassbinder with its story of stolid, wary Esma (Mirjana Karanovic), a middle-aged single mother in Sarajevo, who is working desperately to raise 200 euros for her lying, ungrateful brat of a teenage daughter, Sara (Luna Mijovic).
In Sara’s defense, I should mention that she has grown up in harsh circumstances. She begins a flirtation with a boy by kicking garbage at him down a snowy alley, improves the relationship during school hours spent in the shell of a bombed-out building (his hideaway) and ultimately secures the loan of his handgun as a pledge of love. You might think Esma would be aware of some of this, but she’s oblivious, either through an act of will or else because she’s so tired from working nights at her new job in a gangster bar, serving beer while the air throbs with turbo-folk music and the other hostesses bump and grind.
Esma’s got her bad boy, too: a bodyguard bouncer in the bar (Leon Lucev) to whom she unexpectedly, tentatively begins to warm. He’d studied economics once, before the war, and Esma finds she can share things with him, such as stories about going to postmortem identifications. Too bad that Sara can’t be willfully oblivious. As Esma gets closer to her new friend, Sara becomes that much nastier.
Jasmila Zbanic directs most of this material–including the revelation of Esma’s terrible past–with admirable brusqueness. When she wants an expressive effect, she often has the good sense to subtract instead of add. (Witness an extended scene where Esma comes begging in a shoe factory, and the dialogue falls away beneath the pounding of the machines.) Your attention is directed straight to the actors’ faces–which is where you should be looking whenever Karanovic’s liquid eyes are opened before you.
Yet Zbanic can’t resist putting in her own little touches of art. She sets the tone for Grbavica with a self-consciously poetic opening shot, panning through a silent room across the massed faces of women, each apparently lost in her own reverie. The scene is a women’s center in Sarajevo, to which Zbanic returns more than once. I don’t mind being there when one of the women is pouring out her story, while another responds with a laughing fit; but when everyone just sits there, patiently listening to a mournful song, I want Sara to storm in and tell them to get stuffed.
This directorial posturing isn’t incidental to Grbavica. It’s essential, as the early warning of a soft and tuneful conclusion. Fassbinder would have sneered. I sighed, a little. But then, recognizing that Zbanic had flattered only her characters and not me, I decided this young filmmaker might be allowed room to grow, despite her awards.
Grbavica begins its well-deserved US theatrical release on February 16 with a run in New York City at Film Forum.