Friday, May 11, 2012

The Lives of Others

Das Leben der Anderen; thriller-drama, Germany, 2006; D: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, S: Ulrich Mühe, Sebastian Koch, Martina Gedeck, Ulrich Tukur

East Berlin, mid 80s. Officer Wiesler, member of the East German state security service Stasi, is appointed with spying on playwright Dreyman. After Dreyman's apartment is covertly planted with a microphone, the audio surveillance can start. Wiesler is surprised when he finds out who ordered the surveillance: the Minister of Culture, Hempf, who wants to lock up Dreyman in order to get his girlfriend Christa-Maria. She is only seeing Hempf because of his pressure and power. Wiesler, himself without any family, finds sympathy for Dreyman and Christa-Maria. After Dreyman writes a critical article for Der Spiegel, in which he mentions the large suicide rates in East Germany, the Stasi decides to find his typewriter machine to jail him. Wiesler hides the evidence, but Christa-Maria cannot stand betraying Dreyman under pressure, committing suicide. A few years later, the Berlin Wall falls, and with it the Stasi. Dreyman writes a poem thanking Wiesler.

Winner of a BAFTA and an Oscar for best foreign language film, "The Lives of Others" is one of the best films of the 2000s, an excellent and excellently precise-clinical analysis of the surveillance of the Stasi in East Germany, that offers a few wider potentials for psychological and cultural interpretations. In one of the most obvious, the title does not only refer to the totalitarian government "not minding its own business", but also to voyeuristic people gaining a glimpse into the lives of normal "others" - the lonely middle-aged Stasi agent Wiesler, gains empathy for the couple he is spying on, because their lives actually seem more important than his own. One sequence, where playwright Dreyman is in bed with his beloved Christa-Maria, is juxtaposed with Wiesler's own life where he has sex with a prostitute, and is then left alone in his apartment, which finely illustrates these unusual yin-yang worlds. Unlike similar "The Conversation", "Enemy of the State" and "The Truman Show", "Lives" also have a rare plot twist where the "surveiller" interacts with the "surveilled" in order to help them - in one brilliant sequence, Wiesler leaves his surveillance post, goes to a bar and meets the woman he is spying on, Christa-Maria, talks with her in order to bring her back on the right path and thus makes her go back to her boyfriend, which changes the "course" of events to the positive. Ulrich Muhe, nominated for a BAFTA, is great as the stoic Wiesler, a man without family who does a right thing when his job forces him to do wrong, whereas director von Donnersmarck gives a masterful dark essay about one time period in a refreshingly direct, fluent and accessible way.


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