Lives of Others, The (Germany, 2006)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

It's no secret that some of the most powerful dramas are those that depict character transformations. Such is the case with The Lives of Others, the stirring and affecting feature debut of German filmmaker Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. With a deft hand, von Donnersmarck engages us in the life of a cold, dispassionate character then takes us on a journey that transforms him from detached observer to involved partisan. The film is careful to avoid overt melodrama but, at the same time, it engages the emotions. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the movie is the complexity and intelligence evident in the screenplay, which offers multiple valid interpretations for certain actions but never insults the audience by insisting upon one. A contender for the 2007 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar and major player in European and Film Festival awards, The Lives of Others is deserving of the accolades it has thus far obtained.

It's 1984 in East Germany and Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Muhe) is a respected, by-the-book member of the Stasi. He is a master interrogator and teaches classes about how to recognize when a suspect is lying. He is asked by his superior, Grubitz (Ulrich Turkur), to head up a surveillance mission of playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) and his actress-girlfriend, Crista Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck). Dreyman appears to be a good socialist and he never overtly criticizes the GDR, but Grubitz suspects he may be leading a double life. To complicate matters, a highly placed minister (Thomas Thieme) wants Crista for his own - something that would be facilitated if Dreyman was out of the picture. Weisler goes into the mission intending to uncover instances of Dreyman's anti-state duplicity but, the more he listens to what transpires Dreyman's apartment, the more involved he becomes in the playwright's day-to-day living. Weisler also develops protective instincts for Dreyman and Crista and makes the leap from observer to participant as he seeks to keep them from making decisions that will ruin their futures.

The seduction depicted in The Lives of Others is unintentional. Wiesler is enticed by the possibility of art, meaning, and love, all of which are absent from his existence but present in that of Dreyman and Crista. Wiesler lives in a Spartan apartment, with nothing to distinguish it from a hotel room and, when he desires company, he calls a prostitute. By listening to Dreyman and Crista, he discovers the potential of a more fulfilling existence. Eventually, his desire to be part of something meaningful leads him to act to protect the couple, even though his actions violate the law and place his career in jeopardy.

Though von Donnersmarck accords Dreyman and Crista a fair amount of screen time, their roles are to act as catalysts. This is Wiesler's story and, although there are moments of tragedy, it's ultimately one of redemption. The film is crafted in such a way that we achieve a catharsis without feeling manipulated. The Lives of Others allows us to understand this distant, unloved character and be willing to accompany him on an emotional journey that leads to unexpected destinations. It's a bonus that the subjects of his surveillance are interesting and worth spending time with as well. That enriches the film's tapestry and adds layers to the resolution.

As Wiesler, Ulrich Muhe is note-perfect, capturing the gradual changes to his character with aplomb. According to von Donnersmarck, the part was written with Muhe in mind, which may be a clue as to why there's such synergy between the actor and his screen counterpart. Co-stars Martina Gedeck and Sebastian Koch are also effective, but neither is able to steal the film away from Muhe, whose low-key approach makes him the surprising centerpiece of many scenes, most notably the one in which he eavesdrops as Dreyman plays a piano sonata ("Sonata for a Good Man.")

The strength of The Lives of Others is that it works on numerous levels - especially in the way it approaches Wiesler's complexity as an individual - and that none of the characters are one-dimensional or facile. With solid performances and a terrific screenplay, this movie offers solid, no-frills drama that feels organic and believable, not contrived. Whether or not this is the best foreign language film of 2006 is debatable, but there should be no argument that it is deserving to be numbered among the elite non-English language productions receiving international distribution.

Lives of Others, The (Germany, 2006)

Ranked #1 in Berardinelli's Top 10 of 2007
Run Time: 2:17
U.S. Release Date: 2007-02-09
MPAA Rating: "R" (Nudity, Sexual Situations)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: English subtitled German
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1