With prices for cinema tickets now reaching ridiculous heights it’s not often I will treat myself to a new release unless it’s something I simply cannot wait for. Instead, I’m happy to content myself with a cheap DVD or a film on TV which may have slipped through my critical net and, believe me, there have been far too many. Whether the films featured here are recent or old I’ll still be providing my honest opinion on them and, with the benefit of hindsight in many cases, may offer a slightly different take to contemporary reviewers.
The Lives of Others (2006)
In late 2006 I can distinctly recall reading film reviews on Channel 4’s Ceefax page and was intrigued by what would be their favourite film of the year. The Prestige came along, earned top marks, and looked set to finish no.1. It was superseded by the masterpiece Pan’s Labyrinth, which I had looked forward to for months and hoped would win over the critics as it had done me. Towards the end of the year though a German film directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck and entitled The Lives of Others appeared and not only beat Pan’s Labyrinth as Channel 4’s film of the year but also defeated Guillermo Del Toro’s fantasy epic to Best Foreign Film at the Oscars. I was disappointed Pan’s Labyrinth didn’t win but at the same time was fascinated by the German winner. Due to my incessant procrastination habit it’s taken me until now to watch The Lives of Others, so was it worth all the fuss it received on its release?
The film is set in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) or East Germany that was partitioned from the rest of Germany in the aftermath of the Second World War and came under Soviet control. In 1984 Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Muhe), a member of the Stasi (secret police), is assigned by his old friend, Anton Grubitz (Ulrich Tukur) to spy on playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) whose latest work includes his girlfriend, Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck), in the leading role. Grubitz is asked by Culture Minister Bruno Hempf (Thomas Thieme), who has designs on Sieland, to spy on Dreyman in order to get his rival out of the way. Attending the theatre with Grubitz, Wiesler is suspicious of Dreyman and more than happy to share the surveillance of the playwright with another Stasi Officer. While working on Operation Lazlo, Wiesler listens in to the lives of Dreyman and Seiland, hoping to uncover incriminating evidence of the playwright’s treachery to the state. Instead, Wiesler gradually becomes fascinated by the couple, their love and devotion to one another, and begins to look at himself in the mirror only to find he doesn’t like what he sees.
The film opens with Wiesler (an excellent performance from Muhe) teaching a class on the methods of breaking suspects under interrogation, ranging from sleep deprivation to incessant questioning and threats of violence to their families and children. Wiesler appears emotionless and calculating, putting a mark against one student’s name on the class register when he questions the morality of mental and physical torture of suspects in the pursuit of answers. Wiesler is almost like a machine in his overall disposition, speaking little but having a fixed and intimidating gaze, his life is about loyalty to the state and the enforcement of the law to any that attempt to transgress. From the moment Wiesler first sees Dreyman and Sieland though something seems different about him. His initial suspicion soon gives way to behaviour that threatens his entire career. After breaking into Dreyman’s apartment to bug the playwright’s home, Wiesler later returns to steal a book which he pours over intensely, revelling in the images conveyed in the writing. Unmerciful in his actions, Wiesler does become a sympathetic character, having to use prostitutes for rare moments of intimacy and human contact, while outside his work he seems to have nothing in his life.
Dreyman and Sieland’s story is a moving love story but one with many obstacles. Early in the film Sieland reluctantly submits to an affair with Minister Hempf, more out of fear for her career than any desire, and each encounter leaves her feeling degraded and in need of a shower. Wiesler plays the couple by triggering the buzzer to Dreyman’s apartment which leads him out onto the street just as Sieland is being dropped off by Minister Hempf. Dreyman keeps out of sight but his girlfriend is clearly in the midst of still dressing as she makes her way upstairs to the apartment. While continually driving a wedge between the couple Wiesler takes meticulous notes of conversations between them. Over time Wiesler does begin to have doubts about Operation Lazlo and amazingly begins to help the couple, not recording some of their conversations or reporting insightful details. After a row between Dreyman and Sieland over her affair and a planned meeting with Minister Hempf that night, she stops off at a pub across the street where Wiesler is waiting. Posing as a fan he informs her that she doesn’t need any help from anyone to make her career thrive. As a result Sieland does not meet with Minister Hempf and instead returns home to her grateful lover with the promise that she won’t see the Minister again.
Wiesler’s acts of kindness come under severe pressure when Dreyman inevitably does display some signs of insurgence. In East Germany at this time reports on suicide rates were no longer published but after Dreyman’s blacklisted friend Albert Jerska (Volkmar Kleinert) commits suicide having had his career ruined, Dreyman joins with a group of friends in publishing a paper that defies the state. Aware of the transgression, Wiesler now has to decide whether to turn his back on his career and support the couple that have affected him so profoundly or to do his duty and surrender them to the state. The latter stages of the film are excellent in depicting how Operation Lazlo ends but you’ll have to see for yourself how it all turns out. The film concludes a few years later with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, a pivotal moment in the history of Germany. We get to see how the main protagonists of the film have fared since the early eighties and the revelations are completely apt.
The Lives of Others is a brilliant psychological thriller where three principal characters find themselves changed forever by Operation Lazlo. The acting is superb with Ulrich Muhe outstanding as Wiesler. The film remains tense and gripping right up to the end and the insight into the later lives of the characters after the fall of the Berlin Wall made for a very emotional ending. I would still have given the Oscar for Best Foreign film to Pan’s Labyrinth but I can’t think of a better film to lose out to than The Lives of Others. This is another example of the quality of German cinema. Not to be missed.
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