Thursday, April 12, 2007

The Lives of Others

Quite possibly the best film I've seen so far in 2007 (even though it was officially released last year), and thoroughly deserving of its Oscar for Best Foreign Film back in February, The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen in its native German) is a beautifully written, expertly acted and wonderfully shot dramatic thriller, that marks a stunning debut from writer/director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck.

The film is set in early 1980s East Berlin, with the secret police force known as the Stasi at the height of its powers. Almost everyone is either under surveillance, or informants. One of the Stasi's best spies is Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe), a man who can best be described as blank. Tall, thin, expressionless, dressed only in drab grey, Wiesler is a master inquisitor assigned to surveil prominent playwright Georg Dreymann (Sebastian Koch), and his actress girlfriend Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Sedeck). Dreymann is actually one of the few writers loyal to the DDR, but when the Minister for Culture Bruno Hempf (Thomas Thieme) becomes interested in Christa, he orders Wiesler's boss Anton Grubitz (Ulrich Tukur) to dig up some dirt to get Dreymann out of the way.

The film follows Dreymann and Wiesler, one blissfully unaware of being watched, but increasingly concerned with the repression of life on his side of the wall; the other becoming, for the first time, interested and touched by the creative world his quarry inhabits. Wiesler's life is bland: his flat is the worst kind of Communist bloc chic; he fills his evenings with simple meals and visits from prostitutes. In contrast, Dreymann and Sieland's flat is full of love, warmth, music, books and, as it turns out, inevitable subterfuge. It's hard to talk in detail about too much more, as one of the joys of this film is watching the watcher, and the little things he does to change his own path as well as his subjects'.

The performances all round are wonderful - Ulrich Mühe in particular. His character seems to be made out of ice and steel. yet he manages to communicate the gradual softening of his heart with only his eyes - a tear on hearing Dreymann play a beautiful piece of Beethoven; a gentle look at a child while sharing an elevator ride. It sounds cheesy, but Mühe plays it so well - you really do end up cheering for this ostensibly "bad" guy, especially by film's end.

The Lives of Others is quite lenghty at 139 minutes, but even though its pacing is relatively slow, you're never bored. Each scene has its place, each line of dialogue has meaning and relevance, each shot has a purpose. Director von Donnersmarck understands how to build tension without the need for the big bang Hollywood special effects: he lets his camera linger over people's faces, bodies, grey skies, Trabant cars - everything. The overall effect of this technique is to create a true atmosphere: you get the sense of events unfolding over months; you get to intimately know the characters and therefore understand their motivations. They are not heroes, nor villains - they are simply everyday people living in a time made more extraordinary by its very ordinariness.

The Lives of Others is in limited cinema release, so grab a chance to see it on the big screen while you can. It's a rich moviegoing experience that will make you sad, happy, distraught, but overall inspired that their are filmmakers out there bringing beautiful stories like this to life.

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