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Sony Picture Classics

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Director: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck

Producers: Quirin Berg, Max Wiedemann

Written by: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck

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 decency.

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.

—Edward Rholes

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