Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington

From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Media Watch:
Life and death: ‘The Lives of Others,’ ‘The Year of Magical Thinking’

by Father Tom Caswell, for the Inland Register

(From the April 12, 2007 edition of the Inland Register)

Movie Review

German director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck must have one of the longest names of any director in motion picture history. This 33-year-old first-time writer-director recently won the Oscar for the best foreign film of 2006. Combining Kafka and Orwell with Hitchcock, the film The Lives of Others paints a dark yet surprising picture of East Germany in 1984.

Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Muhe) is a Stasi officer who believes in the principles of the Communist state. After seeing the latest play by playwright Georg Dreyman (Sabastian Koch) who is classified as a model “non-subversive” artist, Wiesler decides to find out if Dreyman is as supportive of the East German state as he appears. Secretly, the playwright’s apartment is bugged and the neighbor across the hall is told: “One word of this and Masha loses her place at the university.” The secret police always seem to know something that gives them power over others.

Slowly, Wiesler, who is in a secret listening post a floor above the playwright, learns that Dreyman’s lover and leading lady (Martina Gedeck) is also involved with the Communist cultural minister. As the movie progresses, Wiesler becomes heavily affected by his Rear Window obsession of knowing another person’s life. The result is that the Stasi spy becomes sympathetic to the life and actions of the playwright. A series of events also cause him to lose his idealism toward the totalitarian state.

The ending of the film is filled with suspense and intrigue that just won’t stop. The tragic climax shows that even a person who knows all cannot control human events.

The story moves ahead to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and even after the reunification of Germany. Wiesler finds himself now a mailman who blends into a new capitalist world. And there is redemption in as simple an act as going into a book store and buying a new book. You will not forget this scene.

Ulrich Muhe is incredible as the dedicated spy who can destroy the lives of ordinary people. His life is simple; he wears the same ugly jacket throughout most of the film. Sabastian Koch as the handsome playwright who, after the suicide of a friend, begins to question his loyalty to the state, is perfect. With superb acting, Martina Gedeck brings to the fore the moral conundrum many faced against the all-encompassing power of the supreme state.

The Lives of Others speaks strongly for individual freedom, and at the same time, the importance of community in our lives. It is a civics lesson of a time we may have forgotten. But we forget such misuse of power at our own peril.

The Lives of Others is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) because of some violence, nudity, drug use, and sexual situations. The United States Bishops’ Office for Film and Broadcasting rates the film A-III – for adults.


Like hidden cat paws in fog, a wonderful Russian movie snuck into Spokane at the AMC theaters for one week with no advertising. The movie was the Russian finalist for Best Foreign Film at the recent Academy Awards. The film had the somewhat misleading title of The Italian.

I write a review of the film even though it is long gone, because the film is such a fine humanistic story that can be put on your DVD list when it comes out (which I assume will be in a couple of months).

The film, by director Andrei Kravchuk, begins in a dreary orphanage in Russia where an upscale Italian couple are looking for the perfect boy to adopt. They choose a six-year-old orphan, Vanya Solntsev, played by a wonderful young child actor Kolya Spiridonov. He carries the entire movie. The Italians put down the necessary money and return home to wait for all the ponderous legal matters to run their course so Vanya can come to Italy. As a result, Vanya immediately gets the nickname of “the Italian” from his peers.

Vanya happens by chance to run into a mother looking for her child at the orphanage. The child has recently been adopted and is gone. Vanya sees the agony in the mother as she looks for her child and finds him gone. So Vanya wonders what if his own mother might come looking for him when he is gone to Italy. He seeks to find his mother before he goes away.

With the help of an older girl at the institution he escapes to the train station and finds his way to the town from which he was brought to the orphanage. On the train and in the town he seeks the help of others as he is being chased by the adoption agent (Mariya Kunetsova) who will be out big bucks if she doesn’t produce the boy for the Italian couple. Ordinary people help the boy even in very threatening circumstances on his way to the neighborhood where he finds the apartment of the woman he believes is his mother.

In the end, there is a series of events that are in the tradition of the Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski, who has given us the memorable The Decalogue and The Three Colors Trilogy. Somehow in the midst of a dark and dank Russia, with lots of people on the make for themselves, there is a life-giving hope that makes life worthwhile.

The Italian is rated PG-13 by the MPAA because of violence, sexual content, language and thematic issues. The USCCB’s Office for Film and Broadcasting has not rated the film. I would guess they would rate it A-II – for adolescents and adults.

About books

The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion’s poignant reflection on the death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, has just been published as a trade paperback by Vintage Books ($13.95). Writing roughly nine months after his death on Dec. 30, 2003, she goes deeply into what has happened and how she slowly walks through it.

Like her husband, Didion is a well-known author. She goes back over events using hospital records and writings by doctors and all kinds of experts on death and dying. She brings home a consistent message: the survivor of the one who has died will continuously find ways to hold on to the one who one has died – to not let go. There is the feeling that at some moment the deceased person will walk through the door.

Using Emily Post from 1920, Didion shows how the lack of public mourning at the time of death does damage to all of us. We have lost signs and symbols that, along with the assistance of other people, help the living pass through the loss of the beloved persons in our lives.

In her chapter on being a writer covering the 2004 Democratic Convention in Boston, she describes with great feeling a panic attack in the Fleet Center.

Quintana, the daughter of Didion and Dunne, is ill for much of the story – in and out of hospitals. She later dies, if my memory is correct. It is in hospitals in New York and Los Angeles that Didion does much of her search for some sense of meaning. She continually writes of how difficult it is to go by the homes, restaurants, and theaters where memories of John and her sick daughter come rushing in. And she speaks over and over again of the difficulty of throwing away things that had been connected to John’s life in some way, even when the things are no longer usable.

The Year of Magical Thinking is the wonderful book that speaks truth in the midst of sadness and suffering. It is extraordinary gift to all of us. It is meant to be returned to as we live our lives.


The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s traveling exhibit on “Fighting The Fires of Hate: America and the Nazi Book Burnings” is now on display at the Foley Library on the Gonzaga University campus. This extraordinary exhibit is on the third floor of the Library through May 5.

I recently spent around two hours visiting the exhibit. It includes large printed panels and five or so video stations. I was surprised to learn that the book burnings began relatively soon after Hitler came to power on Jan. 30, 1933 – the burnings took place in April and May of that year. The video presentations of the actual burnings in Berlin’s Opera Square and at university campuses are haunting. They took place at midnight, with uniformed bands, speeches, and horrible spectacle. As the books were tossed on the fires, the names of the offending writers were read out. Many were Jewish. Most of the participants were young college-age students. Often a Nazi leader such as Joseph Goebbels was present to make a chilling speech. By 1939, the works of 576 authors were prohibited. This included 5,500 so-called harmful titles and another 4,000 children’s books.

The rest of the exhibit includes information on the authors who were banned and on response by Americans. Toward the end of the display we learn that after the war, the U.S. occupying forces actually burned Nazi materials and books in a way that looked very similar to the original burnings.

At the end of the exhibit, there is a section on books that have been banned at libraries and schools in the United States.

The traveling museum is open on Mondays from 9 a.m.-7 p.m., Tuesdays through Fridays from 9 a.m.-5 p.m., and Saturday from noon until 4 p.m. It is well worth a visit. If you don’t have much time, at least watch the videos on the book burnings.

(Father Caswell is archivist and Ecumenical Relations Officer for the Diocese of Spokane, and a frequent contributor to this publication.)

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