Simon Dillon reviews the film
German cinema has had something of a golden era this decade, with several terrific films including Goodbye Lenin, The Edukators and Downfall. The Lives of Others is the latest in this trend, and Oscar voters thought it better than Pan's Labyrinth, awarding it best foreign film. At the time, I was immensely irritated, given how impressed I had been by Pan's Labyrinth. Therefore, I came to this film determined to conclude that it wasn't as good. I had planned a spectacular rant venting against this terrible Oscar injustice, and was looking forward to writing it.
Alas, I am unable to do so. Comparisons between two such radically different masterpieces is impossible and pointless. Yes, I did use the word masterpiece, though here it feels strangely redundant. The Lives of Others is one of those rare pictures that seem beyond mere superlatives. It is affecting on every conceivable level; at once historically fascinating yet relevant, dramatically gripping, blackly comical, thought- provoking and quietly touching.
Set in 1984 (a nice nod to George Orwell), East Berlin secret police Captain Wiesler is assigned to put playwright Georg Dreyman under surveillance. Dreyman is loyal to the State, but his girlfriend Christa is having an affair with corrupt government minister Hempf because he is blackmailing her. Hempf wants Dreyman out of the way, clearing the way to make his relationship with Christa more permanent, so he puts pressure on Wiesler's boss Grubitz to find evidence that Dreyman is a traitor.
At the start Wiesler is a ruthless interrogator with an absolute belief in the State, but as he listens to Dreyman, he develops a respect and admiration for the man he is watching. Slowly cracks begin to appear in Wiesler's harsh, cold exterior, and he starts to unravel - reading Brecht, listening to Beethoven and becoming sympathetic to Dreyman and Christa. Eventually Wiesler feels compelled to intervene and persuades Christa to stop seeing Hempf when Dreyman discovers the affair. Unfortunately, this act causes Dreyman to re-think his loyalty to the State. He plans to publish an article in West Germany about East German suicides after his blacklisted stage director friend Jerska kills himself. Wiesler discovers this plot, but feels dangerously compelled to keep looking the other way, even though Grubitz is becoming convinced that he is hiding something.
Wiesler is an extraordinary and hugely memorable character, played brilliantly by Ulrich Mühe. The supporting roles are also excellent - from Sebastian Koch as Dreyman to Martina Gedeck's Christa and Ulrich Tukur as Grubitz. Thomas Thieme is terrific as the odious Hempf, Volkmar Kleinert is compellingly tragic as Jerska, and Hans-Uwe Bauer also deserves a special mention as Dreyman's malcontent friend Hauser.
Director Florian Henckel von Donnermarck (quite a mouthful) paints an appropriately drab and grim portrait of East Germany, and cinematographer Hagen Bogdanski makes great use of space to characterise his subjects. For example Wiesler's large but depressingly sparse apartment reflects his own emptiness, whilst Jerska has a small room surrounded with books, reflecting how his own learning has trapped him. Every other aspect of the production is superb, from Patricia Rommel's crisp editing to Gabriel Yared's quietly haunting music score.
Not only is The Lives of Others a first-rate story in its own right, it is also a timely reminder of the evils of authoritarian dicatorships (whether extreme left or right wing), especially given the current UK political climate. Having New Labour's ID card scheme, not to mention their endless "nanny state" legislation in the back of one's mind makes this uncomfortably prescient viewing. The message is understated but clear, and I for one wish Tony Blair and Gordon Brown would listen to it: State interference in private matters and collecting information unnecessarily leads to a society that treats every citizen as a potential enemy and innocent lives are inevitably destroyed.
But even more important than the political message is its moral/spiritual undertone. This is an understated but deeply moving story of redemption, about a cold, cruel but desperately lonely man rediscovering his humanity, and eventually doing the right thing in spite of the cost.
If I had to pick nits, I ought to throw in the regulation warnings about sexual content, though to my mind there was nothing gratuitous. The film also loses pace slightly in the final act, but the emotional pay-off more than makes up for this, and lingers in the mind for a long, long time. In fact, I have an inkling that I might just have seen the best film of the year. I therefore urge everyone to make the effort to go and do likewise.The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.
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