One of the few small surprises dotted throughout last Sunday’s 79th Annual Oscar telecast was that the obscure German film The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen) surged past its category’s most high-profile entrant, Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, to nab the Best Foreign Language Film award.
Actually, the win isn’t all that surprising to those in the know for two reasons. Firstly, Best Foreign Film rarely goes to the most well-known film. (Take, for example, 2003, when widely distributed offerings like Mexico’s The Crime of Father Amaro and China’s Hero lost out to Germany’s little-seen Nowhere in Africa.) Secondly, The Lives of Others is an exceptionally good film, well worthy of its short, golden honor.
The film, written and directed by first-timer Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck (I swear I didn’t make that one up), is set in 1984, several years before the destruction of the Berlin Wall. The action takes place in a bitterly divided Berlin, where a by-the-books member of the East German secret police is assigned to spy on a popular playwright. Captain Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe, the GDR’s answer to Stanley Tucci) is a member of the Stasi, but he’s not portrayed as a stereotypical evil commie. He’s just a man who believes in the art and science of his job. Interrogating people, learning secrets and flushing out traitors is simply a matter of patience and close observation. Those around him may be concerned with politics, but Wiesler is only concerned with doing his job and doing it well.
Ordered by his superior to spy on the well-known writer Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch), Wiesler fills the man’s apartment with electronic bugs and begins listening in on him round the clock. At first, Dreyman appears to be a poor target. He seems quite loyal to the Communist party and is a shining example of the German Democratic Republic’s intelligentsia--“our only non-subversive writer who’s read in the West,” as one character puts it.
As Weisler’s investigation wears on, though, it becomes apparent he’s been sicced on Dreyman because a high-ranking government minister is putting the moves on Dreyman’s girlfriend, popular actress Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck, The Good Shepherd).
Wiesler is between a rock and a hard place. He’s been ordered to dig up dirt on Dreyman and send him to jail. He’s got to find something or be stuck steaming open envelopes in a basement somewhere for the rest of his career. The real problem comes when Wiesler realizes how happy Dreyman and Sieland are. They love each other. They love their work. Watching this happy couple 24/7 only serves to highlight how empty, friendless and loveless Wiesler’s life really is. His surveillance goes from professional observation to voyeurism to genuine compassionate concern.
Wiesler eventually discovers that Dreyman is planning on penning a vitriolic attack on the Republic, to be published in a leading West German magazine. Wiesler has got his dirt. But will he use it? Or will he cover it up? Is he forestalling the inevitable because he sympathizes with these dissidents, or because he simply wants to hear the end of their compelling storyline?
Von Donnersmarck’s film is a masterpiece of subtle observation (literally and figuratively). Mühe’s stoic character remains largely mute throughout the film, but his bony, seemingly passionless face softens like clay over the course of the film, eventually expressing a wide range of sadness, resentment, longing, desperation and calculation.
The Lives of Others is no thriller--though it could easily have been. It’s talky, observational and defiantly unstylish. Nonetheless, the elegantly concise script, the quiet black humor and the wonderful performances give the film an emotional tension that resonates long after the credits have faded. Ultimately, the film transcends its specific setting-
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