Thursday, June 8, 2017

The Same Sky - a film review

The Same Sky is a  made-for-TV miniseries in six episodes, a German spy thriller about the “good old days” in Berlin when everybody and his Uncle Otto seemed to be engaged in some kind of espionage. It’s a bit clunky in places, but overall, it’s well done. Good acting. Good tension-filled moments to keep you on the edge of your seat.

It’s told from a German perspective, but that begs the question, which German perspective. The story involves two GDR (East German) families and their struggles to make their way in the police state which confines them, but which also commands their loyalty. But the film's consciousness is very much that of the victorious West, which swallowed up this ideological showpiece of the Warsaw Pact. The German Democratic Republic collapsed of its own weight in the end and it’s a good and proper thing that the stories of its rigidity and oppressive nature are now being told. And I, for one, have no problem with the need to gussy up the details at times to make them digestible to an audience who prefers entertainment to history taken straight.

It sounds like there’s a but in here somewhere. There isn’t. Who doesn’t love a good romp through spy-vs.-spy territory. And it’s not as if the GDR doesn’t have it coming. All I would ask is that the stories be told in a way that goes beyond winners and losers, between good guys and bad guys. Happily, The Same Sky succeeds in this. The lead character, GDR soldier Lars Weber (Tom Schilling) is sent to the West to seduce women working against the interests of his country, and might well be portrayed melodramatically twirling his moustache. Instead, there are moments when you hold your breath hoping he doesn’t get caught as he plants listening devices in the home of his chosen victim’s family. That suggests good writing, directing and acting.

Lars has been groomed to work his way into the lives of women in West Berlin working with the Western Occupation Forces and romance them out of their secrets. He takes aim at one vulnerable woman and when that fails, without skipping a beat, he launches into the seduction of a second. It’s an ambitious plot line which stretches credulity at times, but spy drama fans should for the most part be able to generate the requisite suspension of disbelief.

There are two subplots. One is the grooming of a young girl for the Olympic Swimming team, and the family drama that ensues over how far she is being pushed. The second involves the efforts of a gay man to find a way across the Berlin Wall. The plots are standard ones, in other words and so are the expected reactions. Toss in doubts on the part of fanatic cold warriors, to make them more complex characters, and you have all the ingredients for a cookie-cutter standard Cold War drama.

What saved the film for me from becoming lost in cliches was the absolute howler it contains. From 1963 to 1965 I worked at a listening station on top of Devil’s Mountain in Berlin, listening to the conversations first of Russian soldiers stationed in the East, and later to German Communist Party officials performing the mundane tasks of running the country. Although the site grew in size and importance after my time (and the setting of The Same Sky is a full decade or more after my time), unless I am badly misinformed, I doubt it ever quite achieved the status of pulsating heart of the battle between East and West, as it is portrayed in the film. Both of Lars Weber’s intended victims work at Devil’s Mountain, and many scenes take place there, with large numbers of high ranking officers walking around and discussing foreign policy. I call that howler material because the site, when I knew it, was little more than a listening post maintained by low ranking soldiers whose real challenge was avoiding pathological boredom. But one takes liberties for the sake of art. (And yes, I’m being sarcastic.)

The inflation of Teufelsberg (Devil’s Mountain)’s importance was not the only howler. Lars’s training involves learning how to seduce a woman. Look in her left eye, he is told, because women are all about emotion and the left eye is the key to the right brain where emotions are located. If she looks down after you catch her eye, she’s interested. If she looks back after first looking away, you’ve hooked her.

Also a bit troubling is the ease with which Lars seems to work his way into the lives of his victims. There is the question of his origins, for example. He claims friends and family in Düsseldorf and Frankfurt, even though he has never been to those places. It is unlikely, it seems to me, he would never run into anybody who might question his knowledge of street names or other facts about those places, or somebody who might detect his actual origins in his speech patterns. On the other hand, considering the fact that East German spies must have done this very thing – impersonate West Germans – maybe the question should be how were so many able to pull it all off?

The story worked, however, proof being I'm replaying the events of the binge over and over in my head and feeling frustration that they have only produced one season, so far. A second season is apparently at least a year off.  Since there is a second season, though, it's too soon to declare this is just another soap opera masquerading as a thriller, as I did a couple times when Lars' first victim's son began turning into a Baader-Meinhof gang type. (Is that where they are going with this, touching all historical bases?)   

One feature which distinguishes TV serials from ordinary films is that there is plenty of time to speculate where the filmmakers intend to take the story in the future. Is this a story for old Cold Warriors or will its appeal cross generational lines? Will they design the tale for a new generation who might be wondering what all the fuss was about? Will they get philosophical, in other words, or will they avoid all the heavy stuff and stay at the level of the spy chase? The challenge of The Same Sky will be whether the characters will hold their fascination a year from now when the story picks up again. Will the gay character fly away in his air balloon? Will Klara's body be allowed to begin menstruation once she wins the Olympic battle? Will Lars decide he's too much in love with the woman he’s seducing to break her heart? Will he decide there's no there there back in the GDR? I have to admit they’ve got me hooked and I want answers to those questions. I’m coming back for more.

There are better films. Goodbye Lenin has a great deal more heart. The Tunnel is a much better escape thriller. The Lives of Others has much more power and credibility. But just as any Russian can tell you, there’s always another World War II story to tell. And for those of us who lived through the Cold War, that applies to that time, as well. When I learned that Stephen Spielberg and Tom Hanks were going to do Bridge of Spies about the exchange of downed U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers for Russian spy Rudolf Abel, wild horses couldn’t have kept me away. That’s probably true for any tale from the time of the Berlin Wall.




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