Film is mostly a narrative medium, and quite a manipulative one. And what that means is that it tells redemption stories better than any other medium. By ‘redemption’ stories, I mean those stories where private virtue is – at the last – made public or visible. The classic redemption story, of course, is It’s A Wonderful Life; I’ve seen it a dozen times or more, and still find the tears welling up as (spoiler alert!) George Bailey runs home through to the snow to find that the people of Bedford Falls have paid off the deficit of the Savings & Loan, as George’s younger brother Harry – who’s flown through a blizzard to be there – toasts “the richest man in Bedford Falls”.
I found another fine example this week in Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s film The Lives of Others (link opens review) about life under the gaze of Stasi, the East German security police. The film won an Oscar for best foreign film in 2007, and although this isn’t always an indicator of quality, in this case it was well-deserved. The Lives of Others captures well the grim combination of intimidation, thoroughness, graft and complicity which enabled Stasi to maintain its control on East German life.
I’m not going to give away too much (spoiler non-alert), but for reasons of professional propriety a well-regarded agent – Wiesler – chooses not to do his job monitoring a well known writer as diligently as his superiors would like, eventually obstructing the investigation, and wrecks his career as a result. When the files are opened, after the Wall falls, the writer discovers the full story, and finds a way to acknowledge his debt. And there go the tears again.
The film hinges on Wiesler’s realisation that his surveillance job on the writer has been authorised only to put the writer in jail so that a member of the East German politburo can pursue an affair with his girlfriend, and the scene where he realises this is wonderfully well-written. Of course, it doesn’t all end well. As John Le Carré once said, love is whatever you can still betray. But sometimes we can also redeem our debts: even if it takes years.