Movie review: “The Lives of Others”

The Lives of Others (“Das Leben der Anderen” in the original German) (trailer here) is a German language film with English subtitles. First screened in 2006, it is the feature film debut of writer and director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck.

It is a dark and subtle thriller set in East Berlin during the 1980s, at a time when the terrifying Stasi (“Staatssicherheitsdienst”), the secret police of the German Democratic Republic, was monitoring the activities of the nation’s citizens, particularly those writers, playwrights, artists, actors etc. whom the state deemed ‘potentially subversive’.

Stasi Captain Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe) is instructed by his chief and friend from their training days, Anton Grubitz (Ulrich Tukur) to conduct full-scale surveillance on a playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) and his lover, Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck), who is an actress. After their apartment has been extensively bugged with listening and recording devices, Wiesler and his assistant Udo, who have set up all their equipment in the attic of the apartment building, settle into a routine of monitoring the activities and conversations of Dreyman and Sieland.

Wiesler is played with such delicate understatement and restraint by Ulrich Mühe, that the slightest lift of an eyebrow, tilt of the head,  flicker across the lips and the subtly shifting emotions reflected in his eyes, are profoundly expressive. I was very sad to read the Mühe had died on 22 July 2007, and intrigued to read about some of the parallels between his own life and that of the characters in The Lives of Others (see here).

Lisa Schwarzbaum writes in Entertainment Weekly:

“Some of the movie’s tensest moments take place with the most minimal of action — Wiesler simply listening through headphones, Dreyman simply lying on his bed, a neighbor simply looking through a door peephole, her whole life contingent on what she does about what she sees. In those nerve-racking pauses (handled by a strong, understated cast), von Donnersmarck conveys everything he wants us to know about choice, fear, doubt, cowardice, and heroism.” (Review in Entertainment Weekly)

Although the movie was criticised on several scores, most notably for not portraying the oppressiveness of the East German regime accurately enough, and for not providing enough justification for Wiesler’s change of heart, I find it not at all surprising that The Lives of Others won 7 ‘Deutscher Filmpreis’ awards – including best film, best director, best screenplay, best actor and best supporting actor, as well as the 2007 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. It deserves them all.

It’s an utterly rivetting movie – go and watch this.


Other movies we’ve watched in July:  

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