The Lives Of Others
Film: The Lives Of Others
Release date: 17th September 2007
Running time: 137 mins
Director: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
Starring: Martina Gedeck, Sebastian Koch, Ulrich Tukur, Hans Bauer, Ulrich Mühe
With an Oscar to its credit, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s 2007 German film drama of life in Stasi East Germany enjoyed perhaps the best possible critical reception. With von Donnersmarck’s next offering, The 28th Amendment due in cinemas next year, it is a timely moment to consider the film that brought this director to international prominence.
The story follows grim and efficient Stasi secret police captain Wiesler in his task of spying on controversial playwright, Dreyman, and his beautiful actress lover, Christa-Maria. At first, Wiesler sees this work as an opportunity to impress his superiors by exposing Dreyman and his artists’ clique as subversive enemies of the State, thereby securing his position amongst the Stasi’s elite.
Soon, however, the maelstrom of passions, ideas and music he hears through the regime’s hidden listening devices lead Wiesler to see that such things are missing from his own life, and that the harsh efficiency of the State is cold comfort.
A man used to following orders, Wiesler begins to question his role, and to doubt the moralities of a system he is a part of. He becomes almost intoxicated with his subjects to the point that he will risk everything to save them…
The film is very effective in encouraging its audience to enter into the voyeuristic world of its protagonist. Like Ulrich Mühe’s Weisler, it seduces the viewer through the glimpses of glamour and passion for creativity that burns all the brighter amid the sterile setting of 1980s East Germany. Iron curtain Germany is portrayed as a paranoid, militarised state – functional and unjust in equal measure. This gives the film a more timeless narrative feel akin to the patient taut build up of a Polanski classic than a modern commercialised studio beast.
Quickly, we learn that the cold apparatus of State control is still subject to the all too human whims of those in power. Sebastian Koch’s writer Dreyman is put under surveillance by a corrupt official seeking to have his way with the glamorous Christa-Maria. It is perhaps fitting, then, that the seductive passion of their lives soon becomes the only thing that can save them, as Wiesler’s training, and even his loyalty begin to buckle under the strain of the freedom of thought, expression and desire emanating from his crackling headphones.
In contrast, the artists too are portrayed almost childlike – flawed yet romanticised individuals unable to contain the passions that threaten to destroy them. They are powerless, yet possessed of more powerful tools to shape human thought than the near Orwellian ‘thought police’ could ever hope to master.
In spite of such emotive and powerful conflict – a clash of artistic abandon and political, doctrinal constraint – the film’s greatest achievement is the unfussy simplicity with which it conveys the story.
Much praise for this belongs to the cast. Ulrich Mühe’s quiet, dignified and, at times, unsettling portrayal of Wiesler allows for the film to unfold at a steady, metronomic pace that lends much to the tension that builds to a climax in the final third. Sebastian Koch is utterly believable as a writer struggling to strike a balance between the revolutionary ideas of his friends and the cosy idyllic domestic bliss of his romance. Martina Gedeck lends a cornered vulnerability to Christa-Maria, making her own agonising choices painfully clear without recourse to melodrama.
This understated choice is reinforced by von Donnersmarck’s tightly written script – arresting, contemplative, visual direction – and Gabriel Yared and Stephane Moucha’s subtle score, which are, in combination, suggestive without being overtly manipulative.
Some of the film’s most poignant moments are born out of its context within history. Set in 1985, the Stasi officers’ belief in the unfailing continuity of their regime is never questioned even by the revolutionary artists. Whilst there is both despair and resignation in the face of the actions of the State, no-one ever suggests that it might end just four short years later, and the fall of the Berlin Wall, when it arrives in the film, is greeted most prevailingly with surprise.
Perhaps the most enduring suggestion made by the film’s villainous Minister Bruno Hempfh is that artists secretly revel in, and long for the days of creative limitation and political constraint because these are the moments in which art is truly powerful, or perhaps more tellingly, the moments in which artists are feared by those in power. History tells us that this fear is justified, and The Lives Of Others, through the story of Wiesler, the small man, the cog in the machine and his lonely, draughty enlightenment through the stolen whisperings and embraces of two flawed idealists, captures this to perfection. In doing so, it justifies the critical reward the film has ultimately and deservedly gained.
Whilst modern masterpiece is a phrase that is coined all too often, The Lives Of Others is a genuine contender for such a label. A great story, subtle, artful filmmaking, and characters that leave an enduring impression upon an audience make this everything one could ask for from a cinematic experience.
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