Monday, January 24, 2011

Review: The Lives of Others (Florian Henckel Von Donnersmarck, 2006)

It is great films like The Lives of Others that really demonstrates and reminds viewers of the possibility and power of filmmaking. A very deserving winner of Best Foreign Language Film at the 2006 Academy Awards, it is one of the most popular and certainly one of the very finest films of the decade. Tackling a context at the very heart of modern European history, director Florian Henckel Von Donnersmarck intricately weaves brilliant characters and profoundly moving human drama into a taut political thriller. Set in 1984, five years before the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the German Democratic Republic has set in place a strict government of the cultural scene in East Berlin. This policing is the responsibility of agents of the Stasi, who make it their business to use an extensive network of spies and surveillance to know everything about their citizens. It is a society that prays on human weakness, choosing to apprehend anyone who dares any dissension within the Communist Government allowing them to destroy the lives of any intellectual they liked.

The subject in this film is Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch), a loyal and successful playwright, who becomes a target of the Stasi for a number of unwarranted motives but predominantly because he has yet to write anything suspicious, and a close surveillance of his life may find ties to known deserters. The task of surveillance is given to Captain Gerd Wiesler (a brilliant Ulrich Muhe), who we are first introduced to when interrogating a man suspected of aiding his neighbour across the border. We discover that he is meticulous and calculating, a true believer in the State and a brilliantly skilled interrogation officer. We originally believe him to be cold and unsympathetic toward his enemies. We are then revealed that Wiesler is also a lecturer and is playing a recording to his eager pupils of the same interrogation, explaining his methods of interrogation in detail. Following the lecture he is approached by his superior, Grubitz (Ulrich Tukur), and assigned the case of setting up surveillance on Dreyman and his live-in girlfriend, accomplished actress Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck). Wiesler bugs Dreyman's apartment and sets up surveillance equipment in the building, but after a few days of idle activity, finds out the true reason Dreyman has been targeted. The Party's Minister of Culture, Bruno Hempf (Thomas Thieme) covets Sieland and is using his influence within the Stasi to rid himself of a rival. This represents a brutal abuse of power, which horrifies Wiesler. Sieland is serving Hempf sexual favours, but fears that her career could be completely destroyed if she doesn't consent to the will of such a powerful individual. Although a Communist, Dreyman is disillusioned by the way his blacklisted friends are treated by the State, and when a close director friend of his commits suicide, he becomes distraught and infuriated and decides to anonymously publish an article in a West German magazine on concealed suicide rates. Using red ink on a smuggled miniature typewriter from West Germany to avoid a typeface match, he hides it under the floorboards of his apartment, as the Stasi begin a search for the culprit. To continue with anymore plot will likely reveal too many spoilers, but Weisler, who finds interest in the lives of Dreyman and Sieland and because of a developed sympathy towards their situation, adopts the secretive role of their personal guardian angel.

Completely unknown to Dreyman at this point, Weisler has had complete access to their lives through the electronic surveillance, and has a level of power of what he chooses to pass onto his superiors in his reports. Does he risk his career or life to protect a complete stranger? What the film does well is force us to believe Weisler's change of heart and acceptance of his feelings towards the couple and realizes he has a chance to help them. As we are revealed throughout the film, Weisler is socially withdrawn, has no life outside of his work, lives alone and occasionally engages in unemotional sex with large-breasted prostitutes. What is likely his first real connection with people emerges through his respect for Dreyman and his admiration for Sieland. He realizes they are not bad people, just successful artists sadly encroached by the corrupt cultural governing of the State, and desperate for change. To play a man who excels in keeping his emotions internalized, so as not to reveal weakness in an interrogation, Ulrich Muhe brilliantly conveys this purely through his eyes, facial twitches and mannerisms.

The Lives of Others is also beautifully shot using a dark film noir style of cinematography, and gloriously scored. While we aren't revealed to everything immediately, the tension is developed through the morality of the characters, and asks us to calculate what we are witnessing and how the unravelling of the events will affect them. Most of the tension actually emerges through the presence of silence, or through revelations in the dialogue. The conclusion is also exceptional. Great films have to have great endings, and this is one of the best I have ever seen. The Lives of Others is a masterfully directed political thriller that contains many poignant subtleties that rewards many repeated viewings, making the film genuinely moving and memorable. While both tragic and heart warming this is one of the most inspirational films I have ever seen that left me with a strong desire to do right by people. You have to love the magic of cinema.

My Rating: 5 Stars

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