Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Lives of Others is an excellent German film about life in the East German GDR before the fall of the Berlin Wall, when the population lived in constant fear of the secret police known as the Stasi. Writer-director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's story of artists under surveillance by merciless, corrupt officials is gripping from beginning to end. Released by Sony Classics, the film won last year's Academy Award for Best Foreign Film.
Noted playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch of Black Book) and actress Christa-Marie Sieland (Martina Gedeck) come under heavy surveillance when Bruno Hempf, a Communist minister (Thomas Thieme) wants her for his own. Stasi official Anton Grubitz (Ulrich Tukur) is happy to have Dreyman's apartment wired and his phone tapped, if it means currying favor with Hempf. The utterly ruthless Stasi operative Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe) suspects Dreyman simply because his record is too clean. Grubitz is confident that Dreyman can be caught expressing anti-government sentiments. While listening in, Wieser becomes fascinated with Dreyman and Sieland's loving and creative relationship. When it becomes evident that Dreyman is conspiring with dissidents to publish an exposé of GDR policies in West Germany, Wiesler protects the writer, putting himself at risk. Meanwhile, under pressure from Hempf to remove the competition for the beautiful Sieland, Grubitz furiously demands that Wieser find any pretext to have Dreyman arrested.
The Lives of Others is said to be scrupulously researched; even the specific equipment used by the insidious Stasi 'mind police' is said to be authentic. The film depicts the nightmarish reality of a totalitarian society much better than foolish old American anti-Commie movies. The Stasi are every bit as malign as the implacable oppressors of George Orwell's 1984. Overhearing a low-level Stasi operative joking about GDR leader Erich Honecker, the sinister Grubitz toys with him mercilessly; he has the power to demote the man to a fearful menial job. Grubitz starts off thinking that playwright Dreymann is 'cleaner than clean' but senses that Minister Hempf has personal reasons for seeing the pro-Socialist writer denounced: the unpleasant Hempf wants to force himself into Christa-Marie Sieland's bed, and Dreymann is in the way.
The key character is the master snoop Gerd Wiesler, who has no personal life and exists only as a voyeuristic monitor of others. Wiesler believes that everyone has something to hide and proves it time and again; a staunch believer in conformity, he can immediately tell when someone is withholding information. Wiesler can break anyone in 48 hours by simple sleep deprivation techniques. He preserves a perspiration sample from each interrogation subject, just in case tracking dogs are needed in the future.
Like Harry Caul, the electronic eavesdropper of Coppola's The Conversation, Wiesler observes humanity from a privileged position outside of normal emotions. He scans apartment windows on his off hours, looking for minor crimes to report. Accidentally meeting Christa-Marie in a bar, he tells her that he is her 'audience, her public.' She thinks he's talking about her stage performances, but Wiesler has intimate knowledge of Sieland as if she were a character in a book. Sieland and Dreymann's relationship has penetrated Weisler's professional armor, and he commits the unforgivable sin of empathizing with them. At first impressed with Dreymann's honest loyalty to the state, Wiesler does not call in the police goons when he learns that the author is writing a dissenting magazine article in response to the suicide of a friend, a blacklisted director. For almost a decade, the high suicide rate in the GDR has been kept a state secret.
The Lives of Others swarms with Stasi bureaucrats enforcing a culture of bland terror. Dreymann's neighbor is warned to keep her mouth shut and rewarded for her 'loyalty' with the gift of a stupid cactus plant. Most of Dreymann's artist friends are watched and monitored, but Dreymann is convinced that his apartment is free of listening devices. Like a perversely benevolent phantom, Wiesler shields Dreymann from suspicion, secretly celebrating when his efforts keep Christa-Marie from falling under the control of the loathsome Hempf. But the suspicious Grubitz can tell that something is wrong, and takes steps to find out what's really happening.
All the actors in The Lives of Others are excellent, but the late Ulrich Mühe is mesmerizing as the Stasi automaton who rediscovers his humanity. Wieser watches others make life-crushing mistakes with cool detachment, and finds his own soul by taking daring risks without batting an eye. Meanwhile, Dreymann recalls that Lenin once said that he could no longer listen to his favorite symphonic music, as it made him want to embrace people instead of smash heads together, as his revolution required. The quote is an almost perfect expression of the incompatibility of artistic freedom and governmental intrusion.
East Berlin has changed so much in just fifteen years that the filmmakers were forced to search to find streets and housing projects that evoked the GDR era. Smaller details demonstrate how the state controls public discourse and stifles thought. In one telling scene Grubitz boasts that after his simple reprimand, a troublesome writer has stopped writing altogether. What a wonderful victory for socialism!
The Lives of Others was one of last year's most important foreign imports. The only 'dissent' I have heard about it laments the fact that, although the film's subject is the historical truth of Stasi terror, the story chooses to humanize one of the horrible secret police, putting across the idea that hiding within every oppressor-torturer is a misunderstood angel. I don't think The Lives of Others gives that impression at all. If the film only portrayed wholly virtuous 'freedom loving' dissidents and kept the Stasi creeps completely in the background, it would be just like older propaganda films. We instead learn something about the arrogance, corruption and twisted psychology that result when 'security' bureaucracies are given special powers. As we now have secret police agencies granted the power to investigate us without any outside control, we'd be wise to learn what we can from the East German experience.
Sony's DVD of The Lives of Others is a fine enhanced transfer of this crisply directed German thriller; the film's 138 minutes go by very quickly. Director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck speaks in German and in almost perfect unaccented English in a making-of featurette and a special interview, and provides an interesting full length commentary. He also narrates a selection of interesting deleted scenes. The language is German, with English, French and Spanish subtitles. The Lives of Others won scores of European prizes before its Oscar win; it's absorbing, emotionally involving and highly recommended.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Lives of Others rates:
Supplements: Director commentary & interview, deleted scenes, featurette.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 1, 2007
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson
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