#21 The Lives Of Others
(2006, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck)
“They’re bad people who put people in prison, says my dad”
World War II movies are a dime a dozen. However, less is made of what became of Germany after the War, particularly in regard to the Soviet-controlled East Germany. The Lives Of Others is one of few attempts to address that.
Set in East Germany a few years prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall, State Security officer Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Muhe) is assigned to put playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) under surveillance; mostly for suspicions of plotting against the state, but also to find a way to get him out of the picture due to the Minister’s personal interests in Dreyman’s girlfriend Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck). However, over time, Wiesler becomes attached to his targets, and begins to sabotage the operation from within.
The Lives Of Others is a very human film, themed around the strength of the spirit and the power of art over emotion. Wiesler transforms from a heartless state robot into an emotional, warm human being over the course of the film. But what makes it work so well is that the shift is subtle, with nothing overly sentimental beating the audience over the head in order to grasp what’s happening. Lots of little simple moments of intimacy between the couple gently pick away at Wiesler’s cold exterior rather than one big heavy-handed tide of sentimental nonsense.
The way this works is through contrast and the superb acting from Ulrich Muhe. We see little of Wiesler’s home life, but what we do see is a sad, lonely man living in a grey apartment alone; a cog in the emotionless communist machine. Even his feeble attempts at attaining the same kind of intimacy speak volumes, hiring a prostitute in one of the most emotionless sex scenes in cinema history. But Muhe plays this so well, barely changing his expression throughout much of the film apart from a slight raised eyebrow here, or a fractionally upturned lip there. He plays him stern and emotionless, but with an almost frail undertone.
The plot also never quite goes where you expect it to. Due to Wiesler being torn between duty and his new found feelings of warmth, it’s always unexpected where events will take us all next. We never quite know if he will succeed at saving Georg and Christa-Maria or if he’ll get caught trying. It’s this constant cloud of uncertainty hanging over proceedings that keeps the film going.
However, there are some minor issues. A little bit of research indicates that a solo surveillance operation was rare within the GDR, and therefore throws the realistic tone of the movie out of the window. However, the point isn’t to tell an accurate story of East Germany, it’s to show the power of hope and compassion, and how it can change people.
There is also an issue with not really showing enough reasoning for Wiesler’s change. It feels rather rapid, and there’s a feeling that in reality, his shell would be a lot tougher to crack. It’s entirely possible that his humanity existed underneath, but this isn’t explored in the movie. Either some insight to possible humanity underneath the stern exterior or a greater feeling of an extended period of time listening in on the couple would have helped make this feel a little more believable.
Still, The Lives Of Others is fantastic. Its ability to make us connect with an unfeeling robot of a man is enough recommendation in my book.
Starring Martina Gedeck, Ulrich Muhe, Sebastian Koch, Ulrich Tukur, Thomas Thieme, Hans-Uwe Bauer & Herbert Knaup
Written by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
Produced by Quirin Berg & Max Wiedemann
Music by Gabriel Yared & Stephane Moucha
Cinematography by Hagen Bogdanski
Edited by Patricia Rommel
Favourite Scene: There’s a scene where Wiesler gets into a lift with a small child, and it’s here that we really begin to see his character change. It’s a short scene, but it says a lot.
Scene That Bugged Me: When Wiesler tries to conceal his report from his commander, I found it odd that the commander never noticed it. After all, he, much like the rest of the Statsi, are supposed to be experts at spotting these things.
Watch it if: You want to know what a small boy named his ball
Avoid it if: You want an accurate representation of the fall of the GDR
Originally posted on Blogspot Wednesday 24 November 2011