Movie Review: “The Lives of Others”

The best business people, say the editors of the Harvard Business Review, read great literature and observe great pieces of art. It’s an issue I will touch later in this post. But I owe my knowledge of The Lives of Others to my best friend, Liam O’Dea (Gen-Yer) and my youngest daughter, Kristin Erwin (Gen-Xer). The film won the 2006 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. But somehow, it slept under my radar screen until yesterday when the two insisted I should see it. So, streaming from, I watched last nite.

Lives of others
Some of the comments attached to reviews include: “Stunningly beautiful.” “Simply exquisite. A breath-taking film.” “It will leave you stunned by its Orwellian content.” “A triumph on every level.”

Anthony Lane’s first statement in his 2007 New Yorker review sets the context aptly:If there is any justice, this year’s Academy Award for best foreign-language film will go to “The Lives of Others,” a movie about a world in which there is no justice. It marks the début of the German director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, of whom we have every right to be jealous. First, he is a stripling of thirty-three. Second, his name makes him sound like a lover with a duelling scar on his cheekbone in a nineteenth-century novel. And third, being German, he has an overwhelming subject: the postwar sundering of his country. For us, the idea of freedom, however heartfelt, is doomed to abstraction, waved by politicians as if they were shaking a flag. To Germans, even those of Donnersmarck’s generation, freedom is all too concrete, defined by its brute opposite: the gray slabs raised in Berlin to keep free souls at bay.

Most of the story takes place before Gorbachev and before the fall of the Berlin Wall. A secret Stasi officer, Wiesler, is assigned by his superior to spy on a successfully playwright. The apartment is thoroughly bugged and surveillance equipment is set up in a nearby attic, where the reporting takes place. Initially, the issue is not about the playwright’s political objectives, but about his girlfriend, an actress whom the Party’s Minister of Culture covets. Although a dedicated Communist (I think), the playwright is increasingly disillusioned by the State, and he decides to write an inflammatory article on the GDR which Der Spiegel, the West German magazine, wants to publish.

Much of the action centers around attempts to find a hidden typewriter and manuscript to discredit and jail the playwright. Throughout it all, the surveillance listener, Wiesler, records the activities. In a stunning reversal, the movie ends years later after the Wall comes down and the playwright publishes his first novel. Enough. I don’t want to reveal too much. You’ll need to see the concluding denouement.

It’s a tribute to the richness of the film that it asks how a good man acts in circumstances that seem to rule out the very possibility of decent behavior. The movie is haunted by a piece of music entitled, Sonata for a Good Man, and the very subtle, gradual evolution of the man’s values is barely discernible until the conclusion. And as the Times reviewer puts it, the plot, as it acquires the breathless momentum of a thriller, also takes on the outlines of a dark joke.

Great art and the business professional
Some of America’s greatest corporations used to have great art in their headquarters. As I remember, General Mills once had a full-time art curator on their staff. Pillsbury and 3M both have had their share of great art. Historically, business has had its share of great collectors, starting with Henry Clay Frick and including the Neue Galerie New York, established by Ronald Lauder and his friend, Serge Sabarsky. It’s there that the magnificent Klimt Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer hangs.

HBR’s urging of the arts and literature upon its readers and executives is a piece of a very strong, even historical rationale for the arts and the humanities. Certainly much of today’s literature and movies are open-faced and badly done. There are too many novels and movies which seem created for a simple program—either to be the “most shocking picture of the. . .  blah, blah, blah” or “to show that there is hope after all.” But this is just to say that we need criticism that can explain why some cursings of god and use of the f- – –  word succeed and some fail.

There are many kinds of questions that only literary or movie narrative can provide a full answer to. It may be questions such as how can life be lived in the time of Auschwitz? And to put it directly once more, how can a good man act in an impossible situation or time? Thus, The Lives of Others is immediately applicable to much of what went on in the financial cursing of the last few years. Far better than a class on ethics, an essay, or statements of supposed fact. When there is no truly applicable vocabulary for dealing with such evil, the movie provides us with different “reasons,” a vocabulary that aspires to be scripture.

My tears at the conclusion were a response to the awesomeness of the movie narrative. Movies and literature, we know, can compress or expand time. Although our daily experience suggests that many of us in business rarely feel rich in time, great movies can grant us the sense of more available time. In an absolutely rich piece of research, Kathleen Vohs, the psychologist and marketing genius, sets out with her colleagues to examine the experience of awe. They define awe as that emotion that arises when one encounters something so striking. . . that it provokes a need to update one’s mental schemas. By that definition, awe is an emotional experience that expands our perceptions of time availability, alters our decision making and enhances our well-being. As her research concludes, it affirms my own rich experiences of awe.

Great literature and great movies convincingly demonstrate that the moral and political quandaries can be the most intensely dramatic dilemmas of all. What better rationale does a business person need? 

photo by flickr: together8 

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