The Lives of Others
Director/Writer: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
Cinematography: Hogen Bagdanski
Starring: Ulrich Mühe, Sebastian Koch, Martina Gedeck
Studio Info: Sony Pictures Classics, 137 mins.
Director: Andrey Kravchuk
Writer: Andrei Romanov
Cinematography: Alexander Burov
Starring: Kolya Spiridonov, Denis Moiseenko, Sasha Sirotkin
Studio Info: Sony Pictures Classics, 90 mins.
The Academy Awards’ Best Foreign Language Film category requires each participating country to submit a single film for consideration. Some 60 countries submitted films this year, and, as in most years, they range from real gems to sentimental attempts at breaking into the U.S. box office.
Germany’s entry, The Lives of Others, is a cleverly constructed film about an East German spy who surveils a playwright suspected of sympathizing with the West. He bugs the man’s house, listens to his every peep and writes daily reports. But as he listens, he begins to have reservations about the mission.
We never learn much about the spy, although he’s the center of the movie, and writer/director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck relies almost entirely on an ambiguous, minimally expressive performance from his star to keep the man’s changing sympathies plausible.
This is fine in itself, but I’d be more likely to give Henckel von Donnersmarck credit for nuance if he weren’t also making mincemeat of his film’s plot. He builds interesting, complex set pieces but then knocks them out of alignment, like a jeweler wearing boxing gloves, and he has so little trust in the audience’s ability to keep up with the plot twists that he often explains them two or three times. A transcript, a flashback, a lengthy recap, and then a telltale red fingerprint all convey the same information, as if he couldn’t decide which way to go and chose them all, cuing the musical swell each time.
Although he has a number of genuinely good ideas—like the part where the spy begins to affect the world he’s watching, even though we knew he would—the film is marred by redundancy, indecision and clumsiness. Germany could’ve submitted something much stronger for the Academy’s consideration—such as the excellent character study Requiem—instead of this intermittently engrossing but largely vacuous film about bad-spies-gone-good.
Russia’s submission for the Foreign film Oscar is The Italian, a story about a boy named Vanya who lives in a Russian orphanage. A couple from Italy begins the process of adopting Vanya, but then a woman arrives at the orphanage suddenly and leaves moments later in tears. She’s the long-lost mother of a boy who no longer lives there—he was recently adopted—and she leaves the building as childless as she came, but for the children who raced down the stairwell to get a glimpse, her brief visit has opened a door of possibility and imagination. That night, every face in every bunk carries the silent hope of being reclaimed.
But for Vanya, the woman’s visit presents a quandary. If he leaves with his new Italian family, he might close that door forever. So he begins a search for his birth mother. And the clock is ticking. While The Italian never again reaches the heights of those early scenes, especially after a hokey section in which Vanya rapidly and miraculously learns to read during a musical montage, it nevertheless finds a modest altitude when the boy takes to the road. With a plot just this side of cloying, The Italian is undoubtedly aiming for box-office magic, but it’s charming enough that I don’t mind. With a tensed brow, Kolya Spiridonov plays soft-spoken Vanya as a boy perpetually hovering between anxiety and dogged determination, and the film walks the same line, unsure about where it’s going but always moving forward regardless.