The good German 

A review of *The Lives of Others (R)

click to enlarge I spy ... with my little eye ... something ... that is ... - brown.  Jim, youve got those binoculars backward.
  • I spy ... with my little eye ... something ... that is ... brown. Jim, youve got those binoculars backward.

Kimball's Twin Peak

You were probably too bored with last month's lackluster Academy Awards to notice, or perhaps you had excused yourself to the bathroom, sensing an inevitable win for Pan's Labyrinth in the Best Foreign Language Film category. After Guillermo del Toro's macabre adult fairy tale took home the first two awards of the night (plus a surprise cinematography award), it would be safe to say that even Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, writer-director of The Lives of Others, had resigned himself to being content with a nomination.

Regardless, to call his triumph a surprise would be an understatement. When the filmmaker's epic name was announced, Donnersmarck leapt out of his chair like a launched rocket, as shocked as millions of viewers at home. Now, just more than three weeks later, every art house movie theater in the country is opening its doors to The Lives of Others, and for good reason. The film comes as advertised, which is to say that it's excellent.

Set in East Berlin in 1984, the "lives of others" are being closely watched by Germany's secret police, the Stasi, who listen to conversation after conversation between their bugged countrymen, taking methodical notes in meticulous detail. Playing God is omnipresent listener Capt. Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Muhe), a humorless, expressionless voyeur whose work is his life. He can smell a liar like a rat can smell cheese, and he doesn't particularly like the stench of charming playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch), Germany's "only non-subversive writer."

At first, Wiesler can find no evidence of wrongdoing. But upon further investigation, he learns of Dreyman's radical leanings and becomes obsessed with the growing disconnect between the artist and his live-in girlfriend, renowned actress Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck). All three leads give bold and daring performances, although Muhe plays it a little too straight and narrow at times.

Though the film is, at its heart, a mesmerizing character study, there are several themes hidden in the shadows of the plot most frighteningly, Germany's suicide statistics, which in the mid-'80s ranked second only to Hungary's. It seems that under the oppressive and all-knowing government eye, artists, crushed by the loss of hope dictated by the Stasi's contempt for creativity and individuality, are offing themselves in alarming numbers.

The latest of these suicides is Dreyman's mentor, a blacklisted stage director whose life's work is wasted when the German government not-so-discreetly decides he will never work again, leaving him without a sense of purpose and thus, any reason to continue living. Freedom is a steep price to pay for livelihood. a cruel lesson Dreyman learns by the film's satisfying ending, which is appropriately haunted by Gabriel Yared's magnificent score. Donnersmarck provides no easy answers and makes no apologies for his characters' suspicious motivations.

Taking its cues from Francis Ford Coppola's 1974 classic, The Conversation, The Lives of Others is a complex work of profound achievement. Relentlessly engrossing, it truly represents the best of last year's world cinema. With Miramax already planning a remake, Donnersmarck's career is on a roll. And while that's good for him, it's even better for us.


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