The Lives of Others

March, 2007, Drama

Directed by:Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck

Starring:Ulrich Mühe, Martina Gedeck, Sebastian Koch, and Ulrich Tukur

Sometimes the Oscar awards get it right. That’s certainly the case for last month’s best foreign language film statuette, won by this gimlet-eyed examination of life under the ubiquitous eyes of Stasi, East Germany’s Secret Police. Written and directed by first-timer Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, (who quit film school before earning his degree to work on the movie) Lives combines trenchant political commentary with nerve-wracking suspense to examine the Orwellian environment which prevailed in Eastern Germany during the years prior to the collapse of The Soviet Union. Donnersmark’s examination of bureaucratic paranoia, deception and betrayal should have special impact for current U.S. audiences in light of the recent admission by The Justice Department that the F.B.I. has been guilty of widespread illegal invasions of privacy under the cloak of the controversial Patriot Act. At present, there isn’t a more thoughtful and timely movie in American theaters.

A senior government minister pressures popular stage actress Christa-Maria Sieland, (Martina Gedeck) into a brief affair by threatening her career and that of her lover, playwright Georg Dreyman, (Sebastian Koch). When she resists prolonging the arrangement, he orders Lt. Grubitz, (Ulrich Tukur) a cheerfully ruthless officer in the secret police, so provide round the clock surveillance of the couple. That assignment falls to Gerd Wiesler, (Ulrich Muhe) a drab functionary in Stasi’s hierarchy who pursues his work with the grim certainty that he wouldn’t be asked to perform it if there wasn’t a real security risk involved. Lonely, withdrawn and fearful of his superiors, Wiesler seems the perfect tool to employ for the task at hand; Muhe’s pinched face, sallow complexion and humorless demeanor create the quintessential instrument for human oppression.

But the watcher falls under the spell of the watched; Dreyman emerges as a charming idealist who still believes in the political aspirations of East Germany while Sieland’s talent holds Wiesler in thrall. Instead of finding ways to incriminate the couple, their shy yet cunning investigator devises an intricate series of strategies to comprehensively report on their wiretapped conversations and shadowed movements while shielding their real activities, which involve mild but accurate observations about the suppression of personal expression in their country which they incorporate in essays smuggled out for publication in The West. 

This of course doesn’t provide the minister with what he wants; he demands tougher action from Lt. Grubitz, who in turn orders Wiesler to fabricate evidence which his fearful subordinate knows to be true. Now so complicit that he’s guilty of the very crime he’s been tasked to uncover, Wiesler frantically tries to shield himself while continuing to throw a blanket of obscurity over the lovers. But Grubitz arrests the terrified Christa-Maria and her interrogation causes a cascade of betrayal, death, imprisonment and redemption that unfolds with near mathematical precision from the events which preceded it.

Donnersmark is a child of privilege; as the “von” in his name suggests, he comes from an affluent background, (his father is an executive with Lufthansa, his uncle the abbot of a Cistercian monastery in Austria) and the director obtained a degree in philosophy from Oxford before training under Sir Richard Attenborough. He’s lived in New York, Berlin, Frankfurt and Brussels, studied in St. Petersburg and taught Russian, all this before his 35th birthday. Yet he’s crafted a film in which all the characters are older than his 3 and ½ decades and which takes place during a period he couldn’t possibly have experienced personally. (The Berlin Wall came down when Donnersmark was just 16.) Yet he’s created a hermetically sealed world of psychotically-chilling interpersonal relationships as if he’d grown up at its very heart.

The four leading actors in Lives are all well-established in Germany, each with 50 or more previous roles to their credit, but none are well known to American audiences. Gedeck made a brief appearance in last year’s The Good Shepard. While she and Koch are achingly attractive as the threatened lovers and Tukur quietly terrifying as a cop who’s cheerfully toadying to his superiors, it’s Muhe’s portrayal of Wiesler that provides the film’s mesmerizing energy; as he morphs from remorseless villain into unsung hero, Wiesler embodies the sadness and needless sacrifice so many endured under a regime whose corruption is still coming to light. Muhe’s performance is literally transforming; in his acceptance speech at the Oscars, Donnersmark called his star the greatest actor of his generation, a description which may not be far off the mark.

Longtime cinematographer Hagen Bogdanski cloaks Lives in a steel gray palate, as chilly as the environment in which its characters live and his straightforward camerawork nicely counterbalances the plot’s complex examination of cover-up and duplicity. Although the storyline is a complicated one which unfolds over more than a decade, it’s never hard to follow; unlike other recent highly successful commercial movies, (Syariana, Babel, the films of Quentin Tarantino) Donnersmark’s style resembles that of Clint Eastwood at his best; straightforward and to the point. 

It’s hard to imagine what this remarkable young director will turn his talents and energies to next…but on the basis of this film, movie audiences should already be looking forward to it.

The verdict? A gem.

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