10 out of 10 – ‘The Lives of Others’

DIRECTED by FLORIAN HENCKEL von DONNERSMARCK              2006             137 min.        Germany

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences just awarded Best Foreign Film to Michael Haneke’s masterpiece,  Amour.  This was an easy choice for Academy voters as Amour was not only the best non-English film of the year, but easily one of the best films of 2012 in any language and, in my opinion, one of the best films of the last 25 years.  It was further recognized with other big Oscar nominations, though it did not pick up any.  The last time the Academy got a foreign film so right was 2007 when it awarded The Lives of Others the Best Foreign Film for 2006.  The Academy thus brought even greater recognition to a film that deserved to be seen.  I know I just used the word, but Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s effort also easily fits into the “masterpiece” category.  Unlike Amour, though, Lives is endlessly watchable; I have seen it six or seven times since its release.  It is brilliant and belongs in the must-see category of motion pictures.

Set in 1984, just five years before the Berlin wall would fall, Lives follows a member of East Germany’s secret police (the Stasi) – Captain Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe) – as he listens in on the lives of a writer and his love.  Mühe is phenomenal as the agent and his performance is made all the more memorable for two reasons: (1) as an actor living and working in East Germany during the Cold War, Mühe himself was put under surveillance by the secret police and publicly accused his ex-wife of being an informant during their marriage and (2) Mühe would die from cancer at a relatively young age the year after the film’s release.  The other primary characters are also brilliantly brought to life by Sebastian Koch – who portrays a playwright named Georg Dreyman – and Martina Gedeck who plays his lover, Christa-Maria Sieland.  In an almost Hitchcockian setup, Wiesler actually conducts his surveillance from the attic above Dreyman’s flat.  He sits at a wooden table, day after day, listening to the bugged apartment, taking in each and every moment of the couple’s lives.  This may not seem, on the surface, to be a terribly interesting setup.  But as Wiesler listens, he becomes invested and involved – vicariously at first, and then, well, you have to see the movie.  von Donnersmarck’s greatest achievement is to have his Satsi protagonist become obsessed with “the lives of others.”

Wiesler attends one of Dreyman’s plays where he finds out that people in the West (meaning both Western Germany and “the” West generally) actually read the East German playwright’s work.  This sparks Wiesler’s initial interest and keeps him fascinated.  As the film begins, we wonder what else, if anything, has sparked Wiesler’s attention.  Is it more than just Dreyman’s work being read outside the “Iron Curtain”?  I would argue that it is – that Roger Ebert is right when he suggests that Dreyman’s success and good looks as well as his beautiful mistress’ existence might have piqued Wiesler’s interest.  This makes the film’s setup all the more intriguing.  Dreyman is also the antithesis of Wiesler, except that Dreyman seems to be a loyal socialist.  Dreyman has a very full life whereas Wiesler is an avowed loner; he seems to have nearly no existence outside of the attic and no purpose other than listening to the wiretap through his all-important headphones (I mention them because they are almost their own character; them and the machine to which they are attached).

The principal twist comes when the Minister of Culture Bruno Hempf (Thomas Thieme) takes a personal interest in Christa-Maria, Dreyman’s lover.  He wants her for himself and orders Wiesler to pin something on Dreyman.  But there is nothing to pin on Dreyman; he has done nothing wrong nor shown any disloyalty.  So what is Wiesler to do?  He is a loyal Stasi officer and professional eavesdropper, but we get the sense from the beginning that he is not a “rat.”  He is a good, decent man who believes in what he is doing but does what he does without any sinister motivations.  His reaction to Hempf’s order sends the film soaring into an even more fascinating level of storytelling.  What happens to Wiesler, Dreyman, and Sieland is riveting.  I refuse to provide any details as I want those of you reading this to get access to this film as soon as possible and watch it with a clean slate other than my loud recommendation ringing in your ears.

von Donnersmarck made the film for relatively little money.  The actors worked for a fifth of their usual salaries.  I have wondered how much of the budget was used to getting authentic surveillance equipment.  The sets are fairly spare, especially Wiesler’s post in the attic (his equipment, however, is intricate and looks like it came right out of a 1984 Stasi museum).  Everything is authentically recreated and we are transported to a world we had only imagined existed as we in the West had not been inside the Wall since World War II came to a close and East was divided from West in Germany.  von Donnersmarck’s cinematographer, Hagen Bogdanski, creates extraordinary shots which help to tell the story, especially in the movie’s moments that lack dialogue.  Stéphane Moucha and Gabriel Yared provide a wonderful score; there is one particular piece of music Dreyman plays on the piano that almost tells its own story.  I want to also mention Patricia Rommel who perfectly edited Lives; truly, I say that without hyperbole.

Finally, there are the performances.  Koch and Gedick are terrific as the couple under surveillance, but it is Mühe’s performance that belongs on those lists of “greatest performances of all time.”  The role calls for him to do almost nothing, and that is what Mühe does and does to perfection.  “Subtle” does not begin to describe his work; at times, he is so still while listening to the lovers that wonder if he is even breathing.  His face simultaneously shows both everything and nothing.  He proves that acting can indeed be both art and craft.  Though nominated for various awards overseas – some of which he won – our own award-giving organizations sadly ignored his work.  The oversight was made all the more disappointing when he passed away without really being brought to Americans’ attention; this was the role that should have been recognized and must be championed by true cinephiles.  Stop what you are doing and find, rent, buy, or even steal this movie if you must, but watch it now if not sooner.  I do not think you will be disappointed.

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