Toronto International Film Festival: Bright lights, and the heart of theater darkness

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Author and critic B. Ruby Rich (who programmed TIFF's 2002 runaway hit and award winner Whale Rider) checks in with her first report from the fest:

I’m writing hours after the start of the Toronto International Film Festival's 31st edition. Opening nights are a ritual for film festivals and this one is no exception. The big show is always a Canadian feature: this year, it's Norman Cohn’s and Zacharias Kunuk’s The Journals of Knud Rasmussen, the follow-up to the same team's hit from five years ago, Atarnajuat, the Fast Runner.

I've seen the best and worst of Canadian cinema over the years at these opening nights, but I now choose to skip the red-carpet mob of Toronto's moneyed finest in favor of an alternative: at the Elgin, one of Toronto's finest movie palaces, an international feature with high hopes unspools to an audience of cinephiles with the same. To the collective joy of those assembled, The Lives of Others hits the giant screen with appropriate splendor.

Already bruited as Germany's contender for the Oscars (a sobriquet that isn't necessarily promising), this debut feature proves to be much more than the usual polished Euro-gem aiming at the global market. Filmmaker Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck studied political science and economics as well as filmmaking, and it shows. Here is a man who can think about his society and who, moreover, trusts the specificities of history (1984, in this case, in the GDR) to speak to the present.

Like Good Night and Good Luck, von Donnersmarck’s The Lives of Others begs us to pay attention to history. In Germany, the film suggests, the days of political thugs abusing power to control a population are over. "To think that people like you used to run a country!" explodes its writer-protagonist, in a pivotal scene, to an ex-politician in the lobby of a Berlin theatre reviving his old Socialist Realist play.

Here in George Bush and Karl Rove's America (where the wiretapping that dominates von Donnersmarck's film is a reality), no such comforting escape into the present is remotely possible. But The Lives of Others could be a lesson to U.S. filmmakers on how to create complex characters that lead an audience through complex issues – to learn how to think and feel at the same time, as his compatriot Fassbinder once put it.

The Elgin Visa Screening Room (yes, that’s the name – Visa is inescapable) vibrated with passion at film's end. Directors aren't supposed to come back on stage at the opening night screening, but the standing ovation demanded it. And the applause wasn't only for von Donnersmarck's very real achievement as writer-director. Lead actor Ulrich Mühe – who gives an extraordinary performance as the conflicted STASI agent – had been an East German theatre actor under heavy STASI surveillance. There he was, on stage, a living storehouse of historical process. At a festival where the political is already emerging as a major focus, this jewel of a flashback may well be a flash-forward to the year ahead.

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