Monday, 27 August 2007
THE LIVES OF OTHERS
The Lives of Others (2006) dir. Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
Starring: Ulrich Mühe, Sebastian Koch, Ulrich Tukur
There was silent shock at last year’s Oscars when the Best Foreign Language film was read out as “The Lives of Others” instead of the favourite, “Pan’s Labyrinth.” I was surprised but not disappointed because the Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s first feature film is absolutely terrific. I’ve seen it twice now, and it stands up well after two viewings. It’s terrific as a thriller, a character study and cold war spy film. It’s highly recommended viewing.
In East Germany, 1984, the Berlin Wall is up and citizens are still under oppressive Communist rule. Artists and their works are watched with scrutiny for subversiveness. Many great artists are blacklisted and not allowed to perform or create. In Orwellian fashion (hence 1984), the secret police, Stasi, keeps strict control on all activities of suspected conspirators. They are so determined and meticulous they collect samples of body odour from the seats of interrogated victims to have on file for future reference.
The best of the best of Stasi agents is Captain Gerd Weisler, a robot-of-a-man, who conducts his interrogation and surveillance with unwavering determination. When he is assigned the case of bugging the apartment of a talented playwright Georg Dreyman and his actress/wife Christa, Weisler’s outlook on life and patriotism slowly changes. By listening in on the most intimate and personal aspects of their life he begins to envy their creativity, freedom and ‘joie de vivre’. When Dreyman conspires to write anonymous essays for a Western newspaper, unknown to Dreyman, Weisler silently becomes his guardian, covering up information and silently subverting his own surveillance effort.
Ulrich Mühe is phenomenal as Weisler and gives an Oscar-worthy performance. At the beginning he is a monster who prides himself for interrogating his countrymen with intense psychological cruelty. He accepts his role as an instrument of the government to do their dirty work with complete dispassion. Yet, on several occasions we see him walk home and enter his sterile domicile apartment. Here we get to see the feared man as an ordinary person – lonely and weak. He has nothing outside his job and his sex life consists of weekly visits from prostitutes.
The final moments of the film are heartbreaking for Weisler. After the fall of the Wall, we see the broken man delivering mail with deflated pride. At this point we are given full perspective of the effect of the Iron Curtain. Weisler was a talented man and though he was the best at his job the only way he could succeed was by compromising his convictions and cheating himself and his country. Weisler chose not to and thus became a broken man. But in the last scene, a few small words on a page redeem all that he has lost. It’s a remarkably poignant moment. Some may be put off by the ‘Frank Capra-ness’ of the scene, but it’s emotional and cinematic and takes the film to another level.
A sad footnote to the film was the sudden death Ulrich Mühe, who succumbed to stomach cancer only a few weeks ago. Mühe’s life remarkably mirrored the character of Dreyman – he was a theatre actor in East Germany during the Cold War years, who, like Dreyman, was forbidden from speaking out against the repressive regime. Mühe claims his wife was compromised and secretly had him under Stasi surveillance for the last 10 years of their marriage.
“The Lives of Others” is a fascinating and thoroughly entertaining film. Writer/director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck is a talented filmmaker with a bright future. Watch for him to be making the move to Hollywood very soon. Enjoy.
Buy it here: The Lives of Others