Friday, February 15, 2008

Voyeur Pleasure

Sorry for the horrible pun. I couldn't resist.

Recently a friend of mine who has a film history class was assigned to watch the 1974 classic The Conversation. It had come to my knowledge that I had never seen it all the way though, if at all, so I quickly launched it to the top of my Netflix queue. Without really paying attention, I received two films with similar looks into the world of surveillance and it's voyeuristic conflicts. The other film was 2006's Das Leben der Anderen, or better known as the Oscar winning The Lives of Others. I remember seeing previews of that film and when it beat out Pan's Labyrinth for Best Foreign Film I was trying to wrap my head around it, thinking very naively that anything could possibly have been better than Pan's Labyrinth. Much to my surprise, The Lives of Others is easily one of the finest films of the past 10 years that I have seen and am blown away by how amazing it is. But more on that later. The real point of this post is the strange alignment of the planets to drop these two films on my lap at the same time.

There is no better medium to show just how powerful and life-ruining voyeurism can be. 1974's The Conversation and 2006's The Lives of Others may not be the most similar in story-line, but they do have a lot in common that can't be overlooked.

The Conversation follows Harry Caul, a sort-of peeping Tom for hire who is commissioned to record a conversation of a man and a woman which looks seemingly like a simple act of infidelity. Caul is so entranced by their conversation trying to find out what's really going on and slowly reels into a nightmarish paranoia that obviously runs his life and is his tragic flaw. The ensuing cat-and-mouse game that happens between Caul and himself is one of the most intriguing character studies you can see captured on film. In one of Coppola's (if not his finest) moments behind the lens, we take the position of a peeping Tom as viewers of the movie as his camera shots peer in from windows, through doors, around corners and even from eagle eye views like the opening zoom shoot. It's uncomfortable, yet utterly enrapturing to watch. You can't help but want to watch his dilemma that he basically forces upon himself. He can't stand people watching him or asking him questions, yet he can't help but spy on them.

I forgot to mention Harry Caul is brilliantly portrayed by Gene Hackman in easily one of his best roles along with Jimmy Doyle and Royal Tennenbaum. The subtle performance is so sharp and precise, just like his work has to be, that only a few times does he ever really lash out. Just like a true sociopath of sorts, he really hides his true feelings of the world around him until you really push his buttons. This performance seems to be overshadowed by a lot of his other intense roles, but it's in the simplicity of the role that really makes it so special and intriguing. Without Hackman, I'm not sure if this movie would be just as brilliant as it is.

Next on the queue was The Lives of Others. I had anticipated this movie being good, but was taken aback about how much of a statement it really was. Even more so than it showed the powerful effects that voyeurism really can take on a person. The Lives of Others follows a different protaganist than in The Conversation. His imposed surveillance work is Government oriented and the seeming drive of his ambition. He seems to enjoy listening to people, interrogating them and putting people away for their treasonous rhetoric. So much as just speaking out against the Eastern Block of Germany was seen as treason. If you helped someone escape the GDR, you were locked up. Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler is the man on the earphones listening in on a German playwright named Georg Dreyman. Dreyman is suspected of Anti-GDR leanings form a higher up official in the Stasi and orders that he be watched. Wiesler is one of the best men in the Stasi and takes on the task. They bug Dreyman and his girlfriend, actress Christa-Maria Sieland's apartment thoroughly and 24-Hour surveillance begins. The film follows Wiesler and Dreyman very closely through these monitored days and weeks and much to the surprise of Wiesler, nothing is coming of it. If anything, Dreyman seems to be a very pro-GDR writer and has the least bit of anything against the establishment. Wiesler almost has a reverse Stockholm Syndrome effect occur to him where he starts to really care about the people he has been listening too. More events unfold and weave as the film goes along, but I will not elaborate further due to spoiler possibilities.

Again, the real treat in this film is the relationship between the viewer and the voyeur. Wiesler is at first an uncompromising, loyal follower of the GDR who enjoys interrogation. Unlike Hackman's Caul, the late Ulrich Mühe's character starts to feel for the people he is listening in on and wants to help them. He forges documents and tries to save Dreyman as if he was falling in love with the man and wanted to save him from the fate of ruining his artistic integrity. The very subtle performance of Mühe is brilliant on pa with Hackman. It's only rarely we see the soft side of Wiesler. In a brilliant scene between Wiesler and the Sieland, we see the utter humanity shining through what seemed like a GDR robot of the nation. Unbelievably convincing and uncomprimising, Mühe made his performance look easy.


Both films are perfect in their own right and deserve multiple viewings to totally see the pure brilliance, but even just a one time viewing of these films brings sheer movie going joy beyond their deep meanings. Although The Lives of Others is more of a political statement than The Conversation lets on to be, we still get a brilliant look into the world of surveillance and voyeurism. Each movie has a breathtaking and mind boggling third act and each film has it's share of understated supporting roles. Both films use the medium of filmmaking so well to portray the world of voyeurism, even though The Conversation nails it to a tee. More or less, I was thankful that Netflix randomly plopped these two similar works of genius on my lap one after the other.

5 comments:

jmcleoson said...

Who are you, Bill Wine? that's pun-nacious.

No really, good stuff. These two are great. Lives of Others not only won Best Foreign pic last year, but this year, it was up for the main award for BAFTA (I guessed it was released late there). Actually, it should have been up for the big prize in both.

Paul Tsikitas said...

It was easily the best picture of 2006, hands down. And you know how much I splooged over Pan's. So that's just saying something.

Face of Spades said...

HA HAAAAAAAAA!

Lives of Others sounds like a horrible mirror of 20 years later...

Dom said...

Man, I really need to see this one... Doesn't Conversation blow your mind? Love the surveillance cam/saxophone shot; eghghghghghh.

And in the list of top voyeur-themed movies let's not forget The Truman Show:

"...You want another slice?"
"No, I'm OK..."
"What else is on?"
"--Yeah, let's see what else is on."

Paul Tsikitas said...

Truman Show is definitely on of the Best. I love that movie so much for what it does to show how insane a voyeuristic society can feel and be like. Also, check out Peeping Tom. It's kind of dated and silly, but it totally makes a great point about voyeurism.