Cast: Martina Gedeck, Ulrich Mühe, Sebastian
Koch, Ulrich Tukur, Thomas Thieme, Hans-Uwe Bauer, Volkmar Kleinert,
Matthias Brenner, Thomas Arnold, Ludwig Blochberger
We’ve become accustomed to visions of a certain kind totalitarian
future from films like V For Vendetta and Children
Of Men. In these films people are caged like animals in the
streets, and demagogues shout slogans and threats to frighten the
people into submission, but rebellion always seems possible for
small bands of free-thinkers. The inspiration for these films seems
to be drawn from the French Resistance in World War II, and from
certain aspects of George Orwell’s book 1984.
So while there is a historical basis for these kinds of visions,
the reality of totalitarian regimes in the 20th century was often
very different. In The Lives Of Others we get a chilling
view of a different kind of oppression, a conspiracy of silence.
At the beginning of the film we are informed that in the German
Democratic Republic (the formerly Communist East Germany) a state
security force known as the Stasi (numbering around 100,000) work
with a vast network of hundreds of thousands of informers with the
goal of knowing everything that happens within the state. We are
then introduced to Captain Gerd Wiesler (Mühe),
an icy apparatchik, who demonstrates interrogation techniques to
a class of young agents. Assigned to monitor the activities of a
prominent East German playwright, Georg Dreyman (Koch),
Wiesler goes about his work with ruthless diligence, but his professionalism
notwithstanding, we learn that spywork in East Germany doesn’t
always require great discretion. When a neighbor happens by during
the bugging of Dreyman’s apartment, all it takes is a stern
warning, and we know silence is assured.
Initially Wiesler is contemptuous of what he calls Dreyman’s
“arrogance,” but what we come to see is really Wiesler’s
envy. Eventually Wiesler learns that Dreyman and his lovely actress
girlfriend Christa (Gedeck) have not been selected
for political reasons, but because the powerful Minister Hempf (Thieme)
has an eye for Christa. Yet when a colleague of Dreyman’s
commits suicide, he does indeed betray the state by conspiring to
write an article for the West German publication Der Spiegel
on the multitudes of uncounted suicides that occur within the GDP.
For reasons that aren’t explicitly spelled out, Wiesler decides
to withhold this information from his superiors, at great personal
risk. Why? We can only speculate. Perhaps the visions genuine love
move him. Perhaps he is in love with Christa himself. Perhaps he’s
just tired of the petty corruption and brutal tyranny of the state.
Surveillance is fertile ground for drama. The obvious irony of
vicarious voyeurism aside, we can’t help identifying with
Wiesler’s alienation. The performance by Ulrich Mühe
(who was spied on himself in the GDP—by his own wife!) is
truly remarkable, from an automaton of the state he emerges fully
human and deeply sympathetic. It’s his fate, more than any
that we fear for. The Lives Of Others is both a profound
human drama and a breathless thriller. A very assured debut for
von Donnersmarck, who eschews the frantic editing
we’ve come to expect from thrillers in the America. He simply
lets the story unfold and the tension mount, and it’s not
a cliché to say that by the end he’ll put you on the
edge of your seat, break your heart, and redeem your faith in human
Congratulations to the Academy for getting it right in realizing
that The Lives Of Others was indeed the best foreign film
of last year. Too bad they didn’t recognize as simply the
best film of year.
Take a pal and pay full price for both tickets.
Itís worth a full-price ticket.
Itís worth a matinee ticket.
Wait for video rental.
Check out the video from the library, if you must.
While we would never encourage anyone to destroy a video...