The Lives of Others

Hagen Keller/Sony Pictures Classics
Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck/Germany 2006

The Lives of Others – winner of the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film – is cast in gray, swaddled in shadows; set in drab, spartan rooms, positioned beneath an overcast, dreary sky; and populated with mostly unsmiling automatons.

This is East Germany, circa the mid-1980s and the German Democratic Republic’s secret police, or Stasi keeps a malevolent eye on the population, watching icily for any aberration of behavior or philosophy. Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe) is one of the Stasi’s best, an unwavering believer in his country’s way of life and the need for absolute vigilance to enforce it. He is the perfect company tool, emotionless and utterly colorless, a robot who never questions orders and carries them out without sentiment or passion.

Wiesler prides himself on being able to detect even the minutest anomaly in the lives of those he watches. When a colleague invites him to a play by Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch), a successful, model “nonsubversive” writer with a sizable following in the West, Wiesler is convinced something is off. His colleague, an ambitious career climber, encourages Wiesler to bug Dreyman’s apartment, knowing full well that Dreyman’s lead actress and lover, Christa-Maria (Martina Gedeck) is the favorite pet of a powerful government minister.

And so Wiesler sets up a listening post and begins to eavesdrop on every aspect of Dreyman’s life, recording in intimate detail everything he hears. In this world, every word is scrutinized and even the tiniest slip can unravel a man. Wiesler listens as Dreyman’s pen scratches out plot ideas and he listens as the typewriter bangs them into dialogue. He listens as Dreyman and Christa-Maria fight and he listens as they make love.

Wiesler is able to spy on the lives of others because he does not have one himself. His apartment resembles a cell, his best friend would crush him under heel at the slightest whiff of a promotion, and the only physical contact he has with women he must pay for. But on this assignment, something happens that we are pretty sure has never happened before. Wiesler begins living life for the first time, even if it is vicariously through those he has been tasked to watch. He cannot stop listening. His bugs become the thinnest of lifelines to that which is vibrant, soft, warm and alive.

The Lives of Others is a mesmerizing film with a villain who is anything but. It would have been easy to make Wiesler a nefarious stereotype, but instead Mühe plays him with substance and fast moving, deeply buried torrents of emotion. We learn, by degrees, that Wiesler is not as consistent or predictable as he would have us believe.

It is extraordinary what 33-year-old writer-director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck has done with his feature debut. The Lives of Others throbs with coiled tension, much of it knotting in our stomachs during scenes as unremarkable as a character watching through a peephole or listening through headphones. The film’s pacing is so meticulous, the control of story so faultless, the script so literate, that The Lives of Others feels less like a film and more like a horrifying reality taking place in real time while we watch, unobserved but hardly impassive.

The Lives of Others is a story of paranoia and privation, of cowardice and heroism, of persuasion and resolve, of scrutiny and freedom, and of the secrets we keep even from ourselves. Some critics have indicated that they find the film’s denouncement to be far-fetched and unbelievable. Rubbish. It may skew upward, but it is hardly implausible, nor does it jump the tracks of film’s composite narrative. It inserts just the perfect dash of whimsy into a world of steely gray – not unlike that which occurs in Wiesler’s tightly regimented life.

Not since Francis Ford Coppola’s masterful The Conversation has there been a thriller quite like this.

© 2008 Brandon Fibbs. All rights reserved.

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