Sunday, November 9, 2008

The Lives of Others

I've finally cleared out some space in my head. It's been a week to remember. The end of the Bush administration now at hand. Friends of mine who woke up Wednesday morning uncertain if they're married anymore. It tears you apart.

I've been obsessed with the election, and very nearly broke out of my screenwriting blog mode to pursue something more general about media and narrative. That may happen, but not today.

I finally saw The Lives of Others. It's a German film about a famous playwright and the State Security officer who put him under surveillance. It's a deeply moving film, and a picture of careful, passionate screenwriting. If you desire to be a careful yet passionate screenwriter, check it out.

The script answers some critical questions for new writers. I'll delve into a couple today.

It's common for new writers to reject any kind of formula for their main characters. How can it be as simple as a misbehavior and a goal? My character is so much richer than that! (And I have 100 pages to go! How am I supposed to fill that with one trait?)

I'll give a class on dramatic distance -- setting your main character as far back from the finish line as possible. New writers nod and agree that's a good idea. Then you start seeing their drafts and you realize the slightly distant look was as long as you don't put them *too* far away from the goal.

You go on and on about symmetry, about how knowing your ending can tell you how to write your beginning, or how one plot point can flesh out another. That's all well and good, they think. But it's too damn hard. Or it's a recipe for formula.

Watch The Lives of Others.

The main character, Wiesler, is a fairly unpleasant individual at the beginning. He not only interrogates enemies of the East German state, he trains others to do it too. He's a whiz at his job because he understands human nature only too well. He knows how to listen.

He's ruthless at his job. He in fact fingers the playwright, Georg Dreyman, for surveillance when all others considered him above reproach.

Did you see the flaw? He knows how to listen. He's obsessed with listening and finding the subtext. He worships at the altar of human nature. And that's not necessarily a good thing when you work for the Stasi. He's too good at his job.

As Georg's best friend commits suicide and his wife gets pawed by a powerful politician, Wiesler can't help but feel sympathy for the man. When he encounters Georg's wife by chance, he knows exactly what to say to her to strengthen the marriage. And the drama continues.

Georg and some friends discuss smuggling one of them into West Germany. Wiesler hears the whole thing, and decides not to report the future crime "just this once". But Georg and friends were simply running a test -- to see if the apartment was bugged. They never counted on Wiesler's sympathy. And they start to hatch a bigger plan without taking precautions. He's put both Georg and himself in greater danger.

Now Wiesler has a choice. Come clean or continue the lie. He continues the lie -- in fact coming up with a fake play to cover up real work his subject doing. He gets another security man off the case, arousing the suspicion of his boss. Soon Wiesler is risking literally everything to save the couple -- all without their knowledge.

At the end, Wiesler is the interrogated, not the interrogator. He's come full circle. He's covered more dramatic distance than you can imagine. And you believed it every step of the way.

I've summarized here. I've taken a hugely dramatic script with multiple storylines and subplots and turned it into the answer to an essay question. That's a problem with blogging. It's not finding something new. It's reporting what you saw.

I'm going to insist that you watch this movie with one thing in mind. Not merely "can I identify the screenwriter's tools?" Look a little deeper, and see that a beautiful, true story is beautiful and true BECAUSE it has these tools. They aren't tools once they've left your head anymore. They're simply true. They're simply beautiful.

No comments: