The Lives of Others
directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
(Sony, 2006)

Georg Dreyman is an East German playwright who has developed the unusual ability to balance audience approval with the approval of the State Security office, a.k.a. the Stasi. Christa-Maria Sieland is an accomplished actress who lives with Dreyman but has attracted the attentions of East German Minister of Culture Bruno Hempf.

Anton Grubitz is a Stasi officer who will do just about anything to please Hempf, and Gerd Wiesler is a Stasi officer who will do just about anything to please Grubitz.

It's a game of duck, duck, goose that might have gone on ad infinitum, had Hempf (Thomas Thieme) not suddenly decided that Sieland (Martina Gedeck) and Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) were in need of closer examination. And in less than no time, the very efficient, not to mention demanding, Grubitz (Ulrich Tukur) has put the equally efficient Wiesler (Ulrich Muhe) in Dreyman's attic, with a system of cameras, microphones and wiretaps that James Bond would have killed for.

And so it is that we learn much -- too much, perhaps -- about The Lives of Others. And not just the lives of Dreyman and Sieland. As Lives progresses, we learn much about Hempf, Grubitz and Wiesler -- especially Wiesler, who discovers that his loyalty to the state can be compromised by what he sees in the lives of Dreyman and Sieland.

And there is much in their lives: much more than either knows the other knows.

Dreyman, for example, knows nothing about Sieland's forced liaison with Hempf, at least until Wiesler rings his doorbell just in time to let him catch Sieland being dropped off by Hempf's chauffeur. And Sieland knows nothing about Dreyman writing an anonymous article on East Germany's rising but unacknowledged suicide rate for a West German magazine -- until she spots him hiding the evidence.

What's unique about The Lives of Others, though, is not that so many people caught up in a web of intrigue learn so much about each other -- it's how the information they acquire changes the nature of their relationships: who knows what and how could it be used against whom. This makes The Lives of Others a kind of mega-version of the old TV game show Who Do You Trust? -- with shades of the Francis Ford Coppola classic The Conversation. Wiesler looks eerily like Gene Hackman at times, stowed away in the attic gathering information others would kill to have. And killing might be the least unpleasant option.

Still, The Lives of Others (Der Leben des Anders in German) has more going for it than just spine-tingling suspense.

It has historical perspective. Set in 1984 (a date that will live forever in the minds of George Orwell fans), it reminds us of a time when the Berlin Wall still looked like it would stand forever. And in a more amusing cultural reference, Dreyman's code name is "Lazlo," as in Victor Lazlo, the man the Nazis were determined to keep in Casablanca.

But there's also excellent acting, most notably by Muhe, who was nominated for several awards, and Gedeck, best known to American audiences as Hanna Schiller in Robert DeNiro's spy opus The Good Shepherd.

The dialogue is nothing if not efficient. (After all, it is German dialogue.) And there's even occasion for humor, when the absurdity of the obsession with information-gathering simply becomes too much to bear.

Lives also has a great color scheme. Berlin circa 1984 is done in endless shades of brown, suggesting a world-weariness that even Dreyman's optimism can't rise above.

Written and directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, The Lives of Others went on to win the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, not to mention at least two dozen awards and a slew of nominations worldwide -- anywhere, it seems, that good films are projected. You might considering adding your home to the list.

review by
Miles O'Dometer

2 May 2009

Agree? Disagree?
Send us your opinions!

what's new