Sunday, April 22, 2007

The Lives of Us

One of the real benefits of the movie The Lives of Others is its portrait of life in East Germany in the mid-1980s. You mostly think of the former Soviet bloc as composed almost entirely of peasants and apparatchiks, but this film is concerned with the cool Communists, a successful playwright and his actress girlfriend (who I think is supposed to be beautiful, but with appropriate lowering of standards for Communist-bloc womanhood), who live in a decent enough but modest walkup apartment, apparently of about four rooms, across the hall from a terrified peasant-type woman; at least that place has a little color, having been built before the war, as opposed to the highrise their token spymaster lives in, which looks like someone didn't decide until the last minute whether this was going to be an apartment building or offices for accounting staff. This apparatchik enjoys a dinner in his flat consisting of a bowl of white stuff flavored with what looks like ketchup, squirted from a toothpaste-style tube. No wonder the wall fell.

The Lives of Others reminded me at times of Brokeback Mountain, which among its many other virtues depicted in precise socioeconomic detail the habits and homemaking of Wyoming's working class. I think I counted four successive homes for Ennis Del Mar and his family, each of them incrementally nicer than the last but none of which were exactly palatial. I remember thinking what a big deal it must have been for them to move from the glorified shack out in the fields to that place in town over the laundromat. Such subtle gradations of class are rarely present in the movies at such downtrodden levels. Even Jack Twist, the more successful of the ill-starred pair, landed in a middle-class home in Texas that was still small enough so that the living-room TV could be seen from the dining-room table. But maybe in Texas, that's a feature.

The Lives of Others is also useful as an illustration of what happens when the interests of the reigning political party and the government itself are one and the same. Just in case, you know, you were wondering what that might look like.

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