Lives of Others, The

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 02/23/08 11:38:49

"A lot of East Germans must wish they'd had this guy spying on them."
5 stars (Awesome)

The people I know who like movies but not quite enough to be much more than first-weekenders were shocked when "The Lives of Others" won the Academy Award for Foreign Language Film over "Pan's Labyrinth". After all, they'd heard of "Pan's Labyrinth", maybe even seen it, and the logic is that if it could play theaters BEFORE being nominated despite having subtitles, it must be superior. That's not always the case; "The Lives of Others" needed a visibility boost in America not because it wasn't good enough, but because what makes it so good is tied up with it being foreign to us.

Some would argue that what initially seemed foreign is now becoming familiar. The film opens with Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe), an officer in East Germany's internal security force (the Stasi) interrogating a subject and then lecturing a class on how to read the subject's responses. Afterward, his friend and colleague Anton Grubitz (Ulrich Tukur) comes to him with a new project - a popular playwright, Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch). Georg has avoided upsetting the government, despite having activist friends; Minister Bruno Hempf (Thomas Thieme) mainly wants him out of the way so that he can have their mutual lover (Martina Gedeck) to himself.

While the jackbooted thugs and dictators are the most visible threats in a totalitarian regime, it's the men like Gerd who hold it together. Gerd is a small, gray man who is very good at his jobs of surveillance and interrogation because he doesn't get emotionally attached to anything. The Gerd Weislers of the world function as cogs in a machine, and we see that in Mühe's early scenes. We're not sure just what it is that makes this time different for him. It doesn't seem to be ideology, not even that of a true believer disgusted by Hempf's using him for personal benefit. For whatever reason, Gerd gets attached, and Mühe is interesting to watch. Gerd only briefly comes out of his shell, and Mühe is careful not to portray finding people he cares about as a liberating experience - he remains the same small, gray man he was at the start, even if he's a little wiser.

Are Anton and Christa-Marie fascinating enough to create this sort of change in a veteran Stasi agent? Maybe. Koch and Gedeck don't overdo it with the charisma, but there is a subdued warmth to the pair that is appealing. Part of why the film works is that even though their characters are artists and intellectuals who could be given larger-than-life personalities, and they have to be remarkable people to attract the government's attention, they feel very relatable, not so big and loud as to push Gerd into a defensive position. On the other side, Thieme and Tukur are a bit larger than life while also being all too familiar as people whose ambition has pushed them past Gerd despite his being better at his job.

Writer/director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck has something of Gerd's meticulousness to him. There's a section in the middle of the film where Anton is trying to smuggle an article on how there are officially no suicides in the DDR to the west, and it's a genuine delight to look at how the filmmaker orchestrates it: Anton and his friends carefully test to make sure they aren't being observed, but Gerd's unknown loyalty to him causes them to do things that may very well get them caught, and Gerd must then attempt to set things right in a way that tips neither side to his activities. It's a delicate three-sided dance, and von Donnersmarck never slips up even when his characters do.

He also makes sure to include plenty of the nuts and bolts stuff about how the Stasi spied on their people and how the subjects would attempt to evade detection. It's quality "how things work" material, and I love how invasive it feels - while today's bugging technology is ultra-miniaturized and wireless, what Gerd uses permeates Anton's apartment, turning his home against him and literally tethering Gerd to the place when he's wearing his headphones. Cinematographer Hagen Bagdanski appears to use a fisheye lens, adding a slight distortion to the edges of the picture that reinforces the voyeurism that's going on.

The Stasi's historic effectiveness suggests that there weren't very many who grew a conscience (if that's even what happens with Gerd). Even if it seldom happened, or couldn't have happened, it's still a fascinating story about the need for connection and how paranoia can thwart it.

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