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In the amus­ingly mis-named German Democratic Republic, dur­ing the last years before the Berlin Wall fell and Germany was re-unified, the people were mon­itored for idea­lo­gic­al and polit­ic­al pur­ity by the Stasi, or Secret Police. Astonishingly, there were 90,000 officers in the Stasi and hun­dreds of thou­sands more were paid inform­ants, keep­ing them­selves out of jail or set­tling old scores. A deeply para­noid polit­ic­al élite learnt its philo­sophies and its prac­tice from the Nazis they had over­thrown and an ill-timed joke could see the end of a career or the start of a spell in sol­it­ary confinement.

The awful­ness and absurdity of the situ­ation is bril­liantly painted in Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s thrill­er The Lives of Others, the best Foreign Film Oscar-winner in years. Set in the late 1980s, as even the most loy­al of state ser­vants and pat­ri­ots are los­ing their faith, state-sanctioned play­wright Dreyman, played by Sebastian Koch, is shaken by the sui­cide of his black-listed dir­ect­or, Jerska. He writes an art­icle on sui­cide stat­ist­ics in the GDR to be smuggled out to the West, not real­ising that his flat is being mon­itored 24/7 by the Stasi. Luckily, his main voyeur (Wiesler, a lovely per­form­ance by Ulrich Mühe) is hav­ing com­plex second thoughts of his own.

The Lives of Others drifts in to melo­drama a little a times but when it keeps its thrill­er dis­cip­line, and its wry humour, it is one of the best films of the year.

An aston­ish­ing per­form­ance from Vera Farmiga is the defin­ing fea­ture of Down to the Bone, a grainy and gran­u­lar micro-budget story of a woman try­ing to kick drugs in a world that is almost ter­min­ally unfor­giv­ing. Farmiga plays Irene, a cocaine user since high school, who real­ises she has hit bot­tom when she tries to buy drugs with her son’s birth­day cheque from Granny.

Thereafter it fol­lows the tra­di­tion­al tra­ject­ory of addic­tion mor­al­ity tales (mostly “down” with enough “up” at the end to stop you from slit­ting your own wrists out­side in the candy bar) and it relies a little too much on a laboured ser­pent meta­phor, but Farmiga is won­der­ful. There’s a scene in a group ses­sion at rehab where her moment of real­isa­tion is so power­ful and so truth­ful, it might be my favour­ite screen moment of the year so far.

Laurent Cantet’s Heading South is set in Haiti, basket-case of the Caribbean, in the late 70’s. Rich, lonely, women spend their vaca­tions as sex tour­ists exploit­ing the poorest people in the Americas, com­pletely self-absorbed, fail­ing to recog­nise the tra­gic situ­ation they are help­ing to sus­tain. The fear­less Charlotte Rampling stars as Ellen, the Camp Mother from Boston who spends entire sum­mers bask­ing on the beach, being ten­ded to by beau­ti­ful black men, all the while mask­ing her own loneli­ness with con­tempt for others.

It’s a thought-provoking film but not ter­ribly sat­is­fy­ing – the pas­sages in English are stil­ted and the pace is incon­sist­ent. Ménothy Cesar as doomed young Legba is def­in­itely one to watch, though.

The pre­view DVD of Becoming Jane that I was lent stopped play­ing after 73 minutes so I can­’t tell you wheth­er Lefroy dis­cov­ers Jane’s super-powers or not. This would make a per­fect double-feature with that Beatrix Potter movie from earli­er in the year, then I could scorn them both simultaneously.

Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 6 June, 2007.