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No. 22: “The Lives of Others” (2006)

Germany’s “Das Leben der Anderen,” Oscars’ 2006 pick for Best Foreign Language Film, is that rare gem: a thriller that engages the emotions instead of bombarding the senses. There are no explosions, no high-speed car chases; no, director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s too smart for that. Instead, he crafts a taut, deliberately paced masterpiece where the dramatic tension emerges from subtle character development and interactions. No one character acts as we expect, and so the atmosphere is one of amazing tension — even more amazing when we consider this is von Donnersmarck’s first film.

The tension begins when viewers understand the setting: The year is 1984 (how Orwellian), and East Germany’s citizens remain firmly under the thumb of socialism. Moreover, everyone lives in fear of the Stasi, the official secret police of East Germany. These fears take human shape in Gerd Wiesler (a beyond-brilliant Ulrich Mühe, who died in 2007), a cold, calculating Stasi captain who believes so fervently in the ideals of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) that he suspects everyone he sees — even a university student who suggests Wiesler’s interrogation methods are too “cruel” — of being a traitor. So he’s more than willing to accept an assignment from his superior, Lt. Col. Anton Grubitz (Ulrich Tukur), to surveil well-known Socialist playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) and his live-in actress girlfriend Cristina-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck). At first eager to uncover a whiff of anything nefarious, Wiesel slowly warms to the couple, becoming a silent observer of their everyday lives. And when he learns the true reason for the assignment — Culture Minister Bruno Hempf (an intimidating Thomas Thieme) wants Cristina-Maria for his own — Wiesel begins taking small but life-altering steps to protect the two people who, most unexpectedly, have melted his steely, single-minded resolve.

The key to any character-driven thriller is a slow, measured pace, and von Donnersmarck creates a world where events unfold naturally and unpredictably. Such is the case in “The Lives of Others,” and the atmosphere of social unrest — socialist East Germany, after all, was a place where no one was above surveillance — ratchets up the tension to near-unbearable levels. This is a world where an ill-timed anti-party joke lands the teller a buried-in-paperwork, go-nowhere desk job, or forces one lover to brand another a party traitor to save a career. Anything can (and does) happen, and so von Donnersmarck draws us into his serene but frightening world.

But a slow-burning thriller requires nuanced performances, and “The Lives of Others” is filled with them. Thieme personifies arrogant entitlement as Hempf, a man possessed of an overdeveloped id who uses fear to take what he wants when he wants it. (His scenes with Gedeck are unnerving.) In Grubitz, Tukur shows how power — and the fear of losing it — can corrupt a decent man to his very core. His lack of ferocity, his cool detachment, makes him more than fearful; it chills you to the bone. Koch and Gedeck, to the contrary, inject “The Lives of Others” with a sense of life and color with undertones of fear. Koch’s Dreyman knows how to play the system to get his works published, but an unexpected tragedy forces him to realize art created within government-imposed boundaries is meaningless. And Gedeck delivers a fine performance as a woman torn between saving her own career and remaining steadfast to the man who supports and loves her.

Make no mistake, though, that “The Lives of Others” belongs to the late Mühe. His work here is profoundly effective; his performance is, in a word, flawless. With the tiniest of tiny gestures (slanting the corner of a lip, furrowing a brow), he conveys Wiesel’s transformation from a chilly observer to a participant. As he gets to know Dreyman and Sieland, he opens himself up to hope, to the belief that a world of color and music and love is possible. In lesser hands the transformation would have seemed improbable, but Muehe makes it touching, astounding and wholly believable. And his revelation of a performance makes “The Lives of Others” a contender not just for the best foreign film of 2006, but the best film of 2006 period.

12 Responses

  1. God, I love this film, and your beautiful review just makes me want to re-watch it immediately. Muehe is magnificent, and the script is so well-paced and developed. Definitely one of my favorite German films. I first saw this for a German class, actually, and learned a variety of spy- and wiretapping-related words that I never had to use again!

    I wonder what von Donnersmarck’s next film will be like- it’s in English and it stars Johny Depp and Angelina Jolie. He’s not writing it though, so I would expect it to be quite different.

    • Glad to hear I did “Lives of Others” justice. It was one of those movies that just had me spellbound the whole way through, so much so that when I heard other people say how slow and boring it was I had NO idea what they were talking about! Muhe’s death was a huge loss. What talent that guy had.

  2. I love this film as much as you! It would definitely be on my list of the top ten movies of the decade if I were to make one. I’m a huge fan of Muhe (he was freaking fantastic in Funny Games), and I had no idea he passed away. Bummer.

    • I haven’t seen anything else of Muhe’s, but I’ll but “Funny Games” on my list. I didn’t realize he was dead either until I looked him up on Imdb.com. Very sad.

  3. […] rest is here: No. 22: “The Lives of Others” (2006) « M. Carter @ the Movies Share and […]

  4. I absolutely was blown away by this movie as well. Excellent story telling and it goes to show you there is no need for fast paced action and explosions to make a thrilling movie.

    RIP Ulrich Muhe.

    • This is the movie I show people when they ask me to recommend a good foreign film … even though this one goes light years beyond “good.” I remember being riveted and biting my nails until the end, which is so beautiful and bittersweet at the same time.

  5. I remember this movie, would love to see it again. It’s the voyeur in me.

  6. Another movie that I really loved, but I need to see again. It really is Muhe’s film though, and unless I’m wrong, I believe he was passed over everywhere when it came awards time, with nary a nomination in sight. But that’s just another reason why I find movie awards meaningless I guess.

  7. […] and inventively shot ”4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days.” The film, released a year after “The Lives of Others,” tills similar soil – dictators are cut from the same mold – but Mungiu takes a […]

  8. […] “The Lives of Others” (full review) — Movies about Big Brother rarely take the time to humanize the enemy, but […]

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