This edition’s combination of films was almost an accident. I picked out Das Boot (1981) to watch with the intention of writing about it for this feature. I originally intended to make it a double feature with Blue Velvet and it was going to be a straight up ‘sound-design films’ double feature. But somehow, I ended up picking up Das Leben der Anderen/The Lives of Others (2006) in the sale and given that it’s a film all about sound and German too, it seemed a good match.
(When I was studying sound design, many moons ago, in one of our earliest classes our lecturer made a list to which we all contributed two films that we thought had interesting sound. Our ‘Desert Island Sound Films’. As a group we came from all over the world and had vastly different taste in films so it was quite a diverse list. The intention was to screen a film a week and watch them all, but while we started well we never actually finished the list – partly because some of them aren’t available on Region 2 DVD – and I’ve been carrying the list around for the intervening years picking the films off gradually. What do Blue Velvet and Das Boot have in common for me? They’re next to each other on the list.)
We’ll start with Das Boot as I watched that first. Due to there being several versions of the film available, I should state that I did in fact watch the three-hour version. I put off watching it for ages because three hours is a long time to spend on a film that you know very little about. I needn’t have worried, watching the film I quickly forgot how long I had been down there with them. It’s compelling and claustrophobic – the sound does indeed do an excellent and (mostly) very subtle job of building and maintaining the claustrophobia of being in a metal tube under water with lots of other people and sometimes needing to be incredibly quiet. Those sonar pings approaching and retreating; winding the tension tighter and releasing it again. The unseen enemies waltzing around each other, trying desperately to take each other out and not get taken out themselves. There’s a certain element of having grown up with this impression of U-boats as silent deadly death machines – that makes sitting in one on the closest it gets to silent running, trying to hide in plain sight and fear absolutely palpable that makes for an unnerving experience. I’m not sure how much of the subtler tensions between different parts segments of the navy (the old-school career sailors and the new Nazi arrivals and the young, green scared conscripts) are obvious if you don’t have a good grounding in German history. Which is a shame because the interplay of those tensions is a fascinating and compelling undercurrent throughout the whole film.
Das Leben Der Anderen on the other hand is a much more recent film and deals with a much more recent period of history. It is however an almost equally claustrophobic film. Less because it is set in the closed world of East Germany – though that is part of it – and more because the focus is almost entirely on one couple, the Stasi officer assigned to listen to every moment of their lives and the politician whose machinations set the whole destructive dance in progress. The strange mix of incredibly powerful and utterly powerless that defines Wiesler’s existence is both fascinating and terrible. There’s something about the world of the film, so alien, yet so familiar that makes the simultaneous implacability and precariousness of the system really come home to the viewer. Spending so much time seeing Georg and Christa-Maria only through what Wiesler is overhearing only adds to the claustrophobia of the situation, as the audience comes to care for them as he does. As his perfect cold world crumbles, the audience wills him to show mercy and compassion to them even as he and we understand that this will undoubtedly lead to his downfall. It’s a little bit metatextual, foregrounding as it does the inherently voyeuristic nature of cinema, but for me that only adds to the pleasure of the film.
It’s really quite strange to think that Das Leben Der Anderen is set just a few years after Das Boot was made. They seem products of completely different worlds and yet they have quite a few points of commonality. The use of sound to create a claustrophobic closed world, whether that of the U-boat – with its constant thrum of the engines, giving way to silence and the ominous sonar pings – or the bugged apartment – the things that Wiesler hears through his headphones and the constant fear that the inhabitants and visitors to the apartment have of being overheard. Although they are both ‘historical’ films it is less the genre than the way they look at history that they have in common. They are both films that look at points in history unflinching from their very different horrors, but with compassion for the ordinary people caught up in – and in many cases chewed up by – the wheels of historical events outwith their control. And, well, both of them do have endings that break your heart a little bit.