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David Lynch has done it again. In 2001, he returned from cinema's margins to the near-mainstream with Mulholland Drive, a movie that achieved masterpiece status within a year or so of its release.

Evil empires: Inland Empire and The Lives of Others 

David Lynch's challenging new film, and the foreign Oscar winner from Germany

click to enlarge Laura Dern in David Lynch's Inland Empire
  • Laura Dern in David Lynch's Inland Empire

David Lynch has done it again. In 2001, he returned from cinema's margins to the near-mainstream with Mulholland Drive, a movie that achieved masterpiece status within a year or so of its release.

The opening was there for him to rejoin the Hollywood family, to make weird but commercially palatable movies. Instead, five long years after Laura Harring took her fateful trip down the dark, winding, mountaintop parkway, Lynch—in an act of heroic indifference to popular success—brings us a private obsessive world called INLAND EMPIRE, a demanding, willfully abstruse and intermittently exhilarating three-hour movie.

We begin in one place, with a sordid gangland tableau, shot in black and white and featuring Polish dialogue between a thug and a woman who seems to be in sexual captivity. She wakes up in a hotel room that is shot in tear-stained color and watches a television show featuring actors in rabbit suits who seem to be trapped in an existential hell—it's Sartre's No Exit, staged as a sitcom with a hideously inappropriate laugh track and no jokes, except of the cosmic kind. (This show really exists: Composed of nine short episodes, it's called Rabbits, and Lynch made it in 2002.)

We go to another place, a swanky Hollywood mansion, where a very strange woman pays a call on one Nikki Grace (Laura Dern), a pampered woman who still harbors dreams of making it in the movies. While she embraces a new role, we in the audience already are down the rabbit hole. Trap doors open, and down, down and around we go into Lynchland, where everything is really weird. Scenes get replayed from new perspectives, actors switch characters and identities multiply. It seems a pointless endeavor to recapitulate the plot of Inland Empire; by way of comparison, Mulholland Drive seems as tightly constructed as Rear Window. But narrative coherency isn't really the aim. As far as Lynch has something to say, Inland Empire seems to be a return to Mulholland Drive's vision of Hollywood as a malignantly seductive void that draws in attractive young women, only to chew them up and leave them for dead on the corner of Hollywood and Vine.

One appealing aspect of Inland Empire is that it feels like a family reunion: Lynch has gathered many of his favorite actresses from past movies, including Dern (Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart), Grace Zabriskie (Twin Peaks), Diane Ladd (Wild at Heart) and, in cameos, Mulholland Drive's Naomi Watts, Laura Harring and Rebekah Del Rio. Although Inland Empire ends on a joyful, familial note, what's missing from the film itself is humor and transcendence. Perhaps it's too much to ask Lynch to create another scene like the one in Mulholland Drive where Watts and Harring visit a ghostly club called Silencio and watch Rebekah Del Rio lip-synch her Spanish version of Roy Orbison's "Crying." One of the reasons that particular showstopper worked so well was that we in the audience were committed to the powerful relationship that had been forged between the (multiple) characters played by Watts and Harring. Although Inland Empire also features a plot in which women attempt to provide aid and comfort to others, the relationships here are obscure and lack the same warmth and urgency. The "inland empire" of the title turns out to refer to a sinister gang in Poland, but it's more useful to imagine it as the undiscovered country of David Lynch's dreams. —David Fellerath


click to enlarge Ulrich Mühe as Captain Gerd Wiesler in The Lives of Others - PHOTO COURTESY OF SONY PICTURES CLASSICS

Interestingly, the top two nominees for this year's Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film were both set amid 20th-century European totalitarian regimes. Whereas Franco fascism is largely subsumed by the fantastical, fairy tale elements of the luminous Pan's Labyrinth, writer-director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's THE LIVES OF OTHERS (DAS LEBEN DER ANDEREN) is squarely steeped in the repressive regime of Communist-ruled East Germany. It is no coincidence that Donnersmarck sets his socio-thriller in 1984, as the German Democratic Republic (GDR) was the literal fruition of an Orwellian dystopia. Favonian changes had yet to waft over the Berlin Wall, and this was also still the acme of its big-comrade secret police, the Stasi, charged to squelch any hint of sedition or defection among the masses.

Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe) is a devoted Stasi agent and myrmidon assigned to spy on playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch), who is suspected of apostasy against the party. Wiesler soon discovers that the ulterior purpose behind his assignment is that Bruno Hempf (Thomas Thieme), a minister on the Party's Central Committee, is having an affair with Dreyman's girlfriend, Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck), a stage actress Hempf covets for himself.

Meanwhile, Wiesler finds Dreyman to be a loyalist who abhors the way dissidents are treated, leading Dreyman to pen an anonymous article in West Germany on suicide rates in the GDR (which the regime stopped publishing in 1977 after they reached record numbers). Wiesler's empathy for Dreyman leads him into a cycle of concealing the writer's activities.

The Lives of Others is a film Hollywood could not make for rightfully fearing charges of politicization and self-indulgence—a government agent engaging in warrantless searches and surveillance finds redemption through exposure to the artistic set. Still, Donnersmarck does mine Western influences for inspiration, from the tragic Shakespearian aspects of the film's denouement to echoes of Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation.

Some commentators have written that the erudite Donnersmarck—who was born in Germany, lived for a time in New York, studied Russian in St. Petersburg and attended Oxford University—is one of several modern German filmmakers, including Tom Tykwer and Oliver Hirschbiegel, who have managed to recapture the innovative and provocative style of New German cinema from the 1970s. Indeed, for all of Pan's cutting-edge visuals and set design, the eventual Oscar winner is arguably the more pioneering film. Many post-reunification German films have used satire and comedy in their portrayal of life inside the GDR, such as Herr Lehmann and Wolfgang Becker's Good Bye, Lenin! By contrast, Donnersmarck crafts a sublime, somber and visually drab portrait of a modern-day police state and its timorous citizenry.

As its title suggests, The Lives of Others is principally about people living a lie: Dreyman conceals contempt for the Party behind a cloak of allegiance; Sieland, who in fact makes her living pretending to be someone she is not, is devoted to her beau only so far as it furthers her career; and Wiesler carries on as a loyal subject of the state even as his belief system begins to crumble around him. Moreover, they were part of a spurious nation-state built upon political imperative and external influences, not historical precedent or cultural cohesion. —Neil Morris

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