One of the focuses of the 27th Denver International Film Festival is modern German cinema. It’s a little surprising that not many German movies makes it into American theaters these days, because the changes in German society since the fall of Communism seem like fertile dramatic ground. The Other Woman is evidence that this is so.
The Vague Summary
Because it would be impossible to discuss the movie without giving away at least one “spoiler,” let me be vague for a paragraph or two and say that The Other Woman is an engaging drama. It features two women, Vera, who is in prison, and Yvonne, who comes to visit her. Yvonne came to visit because Vera, a stranger from out of the blue, wrote to Yvonne offering to tell her about “the other woman” in her husband’s life.
Without revealing anything, I can say that the performances of the two lead women are excellent, and that the story is tightly written and mysterious enough to keep you watching. Although the ending itself is satisfying, I don’t entirely buy how we got there. I couldn’t swear it, but sometimes the movie looked as though it were shot on video, giving The Other Woman a sort of daytime-TV feel. Hopefully, properly projected on a screen at the Starz Filmcenter, the movie will have a more serious visual weight as befits the story.
Sweet, Sweet Lies
Spoilers ahead: read on at your own risk. After about twenty minutes, the mystery behind the affair is revealed. Yes, Vera is the other woman, but the affair wasn’t simply an affair. Yvonne’s husband Stefan was known to Vera as “Peter.” And “Peter” asked Vera to do things for him that involved state secrets. She essentially became a spy for him back in the 1980s when East and West Germany were on opposite sides of a cold war. Based on what Vera reveals, Yvonne realizes that her husband probably was a spy, even back then, and that his affair with this woman was part of his job. Far from being reassuring, this political angle is even more distressing.
The most substantial part of the film, the angle that really makes it stand out, is Yvonne’s thirst for the truth, unless a few key lies might be more palatable. The cost of believing the jailed woman is exorbitantly high. Yvonne would have to believe that she was duped for a decade by her husband. When she inevitably asks a few probing questions of him, he gives her answers that, should she choose to believe them, would allow life to continue on its pleasant, uneventful course. On the other hand, what possible motive could Vera have for making all this up? And even if she had an ulterior motive, how could she get so many details right?
The Cold War Made Me Do It
An undercurrent to Yvonne’s shattering discovery is that the abstract political struggles of twenty years ago still have real effects on human lives. It’s easy for Stefan or Vera to blame the East German government or the Cold War for their own moral failings, and it’s probably disingenuous to do so.
Then again, who can rightly criticize them for making that excuse? Could we really say that we would have acted any differently, given the same situation? Perhaps the political atmosphere really is to blame, and if so, then The Other Woman is a strong indictment against anything-goes espionage. Then again, if we don’t allow individuals to use the “Cold War defense,” does that then let political systems off the hook for making immoral demands of its officers and agents?
These are the kinds of questions that ought to be making German cinema one of the most interesting national movements of our times. And if you look closely at some of the other DIFF films, you’ll see some of the same moral wrangling. The German Science Fiction includes a scene of a younger German yelling at an older German for ruining the German “good name.” And in Tomorrow’s Weather, an older man looks at the loosened capital-driven morals of the new Poland.
If The Other Woman stumbles, it’s partly due to the soap-opera picture quality, which probably will not be an issue in the theater. The other stumbling block is the bottleneck rush to the ending between the meaty second act and the satisfying conclusion.
The Other Woman is a thoughtful, interesting piece of German cinema, and a good example of what audiences are supposed to get from this year’s DIFF.