Lives of Others, The (Germany; 137 min.)

directed by: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
starring: Martina Gedeck; Ulrich Mühe; Sebastian Koch
Das Leben der Anderen

Michael says: "The first few months of every year are usually pretty dry when it comes to quality independent film, and even when you do see good movies, it still feels like your playing catch up with the previous year. Case in point, THE LIVES OF OTHERS, the first new film I’ve enjoyed in over a month, is an Oscar nominee in the Best Foreign Film category for 2006. At least, unlike so many other nominated films, this one deserves it.

"THE LIVES OF OTHERS chronicles the political climate of East Germany in the years just before the fall of the Berlin Wall. The East German Secret Police keep just about everyone under surveillance, particularly if you are an artist who has any Western leanings show up in your art. In a brief prologue we see Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler teaching students the arts of interrogation. He is someone who is clearly good at his job, as he marks down any student who questions the government’s methods. Later he is assigned to run the surveillance on a playwright, Georg Dreyman, who despite a seemingly placid exterior, is suspected of radical thoughts. Georg lives with his girlfriend, Christa-Maria Sieland, a stage actress who is also involved in an affair with Minister Bruno Hempf. As Wiesler spends more time becoming intimate with the tiny details of Dreyman and Sieland’s lives through the surveillance, he undergoes a change, and the film sets this up wonderfully. But when Dreyman writes an anonymous article that is published in a West German magazine, the net around him starts to tighten leading to betrayal and tragedy.

"Writer/director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck has scored big on his feature debut (after a handful of shorts and a TV series). He packs an intricate and involved storyline into the 2+ hour film, moves things along nicely, but doesn’t skimp on any important details or any emotional nuance that provide a greater depth than your average thriller. The acting is strong all around, with three lead roles, Ulrich Mühe as Wiesler, Sebastian Koch as Dreyman, and Ulrich Tukur as Wiesler’s superior, Oberstleutnant Anton Grubitz, appeared together in the 2002 film AMEN. Martina Gedek is wonderful in the pivotal role of Christa-Maria Sieland. This is a nice companion with last year’s SOPHIE SCHOLL: THE FINAL DAYS which dealt with similar revolutionary activities during an earlier time. 4 cats."

Bruce says: "Even in a totalitarian state, notions of love can put things in motion faster than ideology. THE LIVES OF OTHERS is a truly remarkable examination of the ebb and flow of human nature under a stifling, sinister government. The time is 1984; the place, East Germany. The Stasi are the secret police who are documenting the every action of anyone suspected of being disloyal to the communist regime or sympathetic to the evil West.

"Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) is a popular playwright who seems to be 'clean,' i.e., there is nothing subversive to be found in his writing, although many of his collaborators in the theatrical world actively oppose their government. Dreyman loves and lives with Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck) a leading actress of his generation who stars in his latest play. Against her will, Christa-Maria is also the mistress of one of the highest government officials, Minister Bruno Hempf (Thomas Thieme). Hempf does not like sharing what he covets. One night at the theatre where two loyal surveillance experts are also in attendance, he plants a seed of doubt that Dreyman may not be as clean as he seems. He gives the nod for Oberstleutnant Anton Grubitz (Ulrich Tukur) to 'find something' on Dreyman. Grubitz assigns the surveillance task to Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe). Dreyman is having a party in his apartment in three days, and Hempf wants every room in the place bugged for the occasion.

"So the cat and mouse drama begins. Much like Coppola’s THE CONVERSATION and Woody Allen’s ANOTHER WOMAN, the crux of the drama centers on how eavesdropping on other lives can trigger a profound change when the listener puts what he/she hears in a personal context. Weisler, a Stasi training professor, is a hardened party member; Comrade Weisler has spent his immersed in party politics. The many hours he spends listening to Dreyman and Christa-Maria provides an introduction to a different way of living, a different way of thinking. Weisler is a captive listener, he cannot argue his views and he cannot walk away. His only release lies in creating transcripts of the captured conversations and berating the man who relieves him during the midnight hours. The first we realize Weisler is changing is when he invites a prostitute to spend the night after the sex is over.

"When Dreyman’s favorite director Alber Jerska commits suicide, Dreyman is approached to write an article for Der Spiegel a leading West German publication. The article is to question why the government of East Germany stopped reporting suicides. That seems to be rather tame in light of the many complaints that could be lodged against a government that has an unparalleled reputation for curtailing personal freedom. When the article appears Hempf is convinced that Dreyman is the author. Hempf begins putting pressure on Grubitz to come up with something on Dreyman. In turn, Grubitz pressures Weisler to gather some damning material. When Weisler cannot produce the goods Christa-Marie is taken to Stasi headquarters for questioning. Grubitz assigns the interrogation to Weisler as his last chance.

"In this excellent cast, Martina Gedeck is the only actor likely to be known to American audiences. She had the title role in the delightful comedy MOSTLY MARTHA and recently appeared in THE GOOD SHEPHERD. The film has a grim, bleak look which is in keeping with the austerity of the culture. In a counterintuitive vein, von Donnersmarck has created an very entertaining film and one laced with great humor. THE LIVES OF OTHERS speaks volumes about love, human decency, the conflict of art and politics, freedom, and the choices people make once they realize there are choices to be made. This film is a timely reminder how easily our individual humanity is lost once we march to the beat of a government that feels the need to control its people. 5 cats"

Jason says: "The people I know who like movies but not quite enough to be much more than first-weekenders were shocked when "The Lives of Others" won the Academy Award for Foreign Language Film over PAN'S LABYRINTH. After all, they'd heard of PAN'S LABYRINTH, maybe even seen it, and the logic is that if it could play theaters 'before' being nominated despite having subtitles, it must be superior. That's not always the case; THE LIVES OF OTHERS needed a visibility boost in America not because it wasn't good enough, but because what makes it so good is tied up with it being foreign to us.

"Some would argue that what initially seemed foreign is now becoming familiar. The film opens with Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe), an officer in East Germany's internal security force (the Stasi) interrogating a subject and then lecturing a class on how to read the subject's responses. Afterward, his friend and colleague Anton Grubitz (Ulrich Tukur) comes to him with a new project - a popular playwright, Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch). Georg has avoided upsetting the government, despite having activist friends; Minister Bruno Hempf (Thomas Thieme) mainly wants him out of the way so that he can have their mutual lover (Martina Gedeck) to himself.

"While the jackbooted thugs and dictators are the most visible threats in a totalitarian regime, it's the men like Gerd who hold it together. Gerd is a small, gray man who is very good at his jobs of surveillance and interrogation because he doesn't get emotionally attached to anything. The Gerd Weislers of the world function as cogs in a machine, and we see that in Mühe's early scenes. We're not sure just what it is that makes this time different for him. It doesn't seem to be ideology, not even that of a true believer disgusted by Hempf's using him for personal benefit. For whatever reason, Gerd gets attached, and Mühe is interesting to watch. Gerd only briefly comes out of his shell, and Mühe is careful not to portray finding people he cares about as a liberating experience - he remains the same small, gray man he was at the start, even if he's a little wiser.

"Are Anton and Christa-Marie fascinating enough to create this sort of change in a veteran Stasi agent? Maybe. Koch and Gedeck don't overdo it with the charisma, but there is a subdued warmth to the pair that is appealing. Part of why the film works is that even though their characters are artists and intellectuals who could be given larger-than-life personalities, and they have to be remarkable people to attract the government's attention, they feel very relatable, not so big and loud as to push Gerd into a defensive position. On the other side, Thieme and Tukur are a bit larger than life while also being all too familiar as people whose ambition has pushed them past Gerd despite his being better at his job.

"Writer/director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck has something of Gerd's meticulousness to him. There's a section in the middle of the film where Anton is trying to smuggle an article on how there are officially no suicides in the DDR to the west, and it's a genuine delight to look at how the filmmaker orchestrates it: Anton and his friends carefully test to make sure they aren't being observed, but Gerd's unknown loyalty to him causes them to do things that may very well get them caught, and Gerd must then attempt to set things right in a way that tips neither side to his activities. It's a delicate three-sided dance, and von Donnersmarck never slips up even when his characters do.

"He also makes sure to include plenty of the nuts and bolts stuff about how the Stasi spied on their people and how the subjects would attempt to evade detection. It's quality 'how things work' material, and I love how invasive it feels - while today's bugging technology is ultra-miniaturized and wireless, what Gerd uses permeates Anton's apartment, turning his home against him and literally tethering Gerd to the place when he's wearing his headphones. Cinematographer Hagen Bagdanski appears to use a fisheye lens, adding a slight distortion to the edges of the picture that reinforces the voyeurism that's going on.

"The Stasi's historic effectiveness suggests that there weren't very many who grew a conscience (if that's even what happens with Gerd). Even if it seldom happened, or couldn't have happened, it's still a fascinating story about the need for connection and how paranoia can thwart it. 5 cats

"Seen 28 January 2008 in Jay's Living Room (rental Blu-ray Disc)"