The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen) [DVD]
Director : Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
Screenplay : Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2006
Stars : Martina Gedeck (Christa-Maria Sieland), Ulrich Mühe (Captain Gerd Wiesler), Sebastian Koch (Georg Dreyman), Ulrich Tukur (Colonel Anton Grubitz), Thomas Thieme (Minister Bruno Hempf), Hans-Uwe Bauer (Paul Hauser), Volkmar Kleinert (Albert Jerska), Matthias Brenner (Karl Wallner), Charly Hübner (Udo), Herbert Knaup (Gregor Hessenstein), Bastian Trost (Häftling 227), Marie Gruber (Frau Meineke)
Taking place in the German Democratic Republic in 1984, not incidentally the year of George Orwell's magnum opus about the logical ends of the security state, The Lives of Others is a taut emotional thriller that pits genuine ideology against the mechanisms of a corrupted bureaucracy. Its two central characters are never on screen at the same time, and one is completely unaware of the other's existence, yet they are two sides of the same coin: Both men who believe in the same thing, yet lead their lives in completely different fashion.
Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) is a successful playwright who has found favor with the government with his socialist plays, yet has somehow managed to not become a simple puppet of the regime. He enjoys a healthy life of relative creative freedom in his spacious apartment that he shares with Christa-Maria (Martina Gedeck), his girlfriend and leading lady. Unlike his now-blacklisted stage director (Volkmar Kleinert) and a fellow writer who is always agitating for subversive activity (Hans-Uwe Bauer), Georg is a true believe in socialism--a bit of an idealist who doesn't quite turn a blind eye to the sorry realities of socialism in practice, but nevertheless is in need of some consciousness raising.
Georg's political opposite, but ideological mirror, is Captain Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe, who first gained renown as a theater actor in East Germany in the 1980s), a member of the East German Stasi security force whom we first meet in a classroom instructing future agents in the art of interrogation. At first, Wiesler is a simple archetype: the unsmiling, unaffected, rigidly devout socialist policeman who genuinely thinks that it is a crime to even suggest that the government might wrongly imprison someone. However, as the film begins to unfold, we get glimpses into his life--the bare apartment where he lives alone and watches state TV, a pathetic rendezvous with a prostitute, a meeting with a young boy in an elevator who tells him with childish candor what he's heard about the Stasi--that make his rigid visage less intimidating than it is sad.
After Wiesler suggests that an artist like Georg is not to be trusted, at the behest of his superior, Colonel Anton Grubitz (Ulrich Tukur), he begins surveillance of the playwright's apartment. Every outlet in every room is bugged, and Weisler sits in an empty space above the apartment, enormous headphones covering his ears, listening intently to everything that transpires and typing detailed reports. It's simultaneously frightening and banal in the way it reflects the goal of the East German government to know “everything.”
Of course, that is the very flaw in the system: No one can ever know everything, and knowledge itself often challenges our convictions, rather than upholding them. Such is the case of Wiesler, whose commitment to his assignment begins to waver when he learns that Georg is not a true political threat to the state, but rather the romantic rival to Minister Bruno Hempf (Thomas Thieme), a state bigwig who is infatuated with Christa-Maria and wants Georg put in jail so he'll be out of the way. Minster Hempf is the very epitome of leftist corruption: his corpulent body is a visual reminder of how, like the pigs in Orwell's Animal Farm, he has fattened himself on the backs of others while proclaiming his allegiance to the very socialist ideals he betrays every day.
The film's core is the way in which both Georg and Wiesler change their behaviors when their ideals are challenged. Georg, who had previously resisted subversive activities, begins to write a secret article about the suicide rate in East Germany after his blacklisted friend kills himself out of despair. Meanwhile, Wiesler, who is both dismayed by the true nature of his surveillance activities and increasingly moved by Georg's courage, begins to act as his guardian angel by doctoring his reports to remove all references to the playwright's illegal new writing project. He does this, of course, at great risk to himself, and the film begins to take on the broad outlines of a suspense thriller as both Georg and Wiesler risk everything they have built for themselves to make good on their convictions. It's not incidental that an important piece of music titled “Sonata for a Good Man” is an important plot point--the film itself is about what good men do even in impossible circumstances.
The Lives of Others was written and directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, a first-time filmmaker who displays an impressive understanding of both suspense and melodrama. The film began as his final project at the Hochschule fuer Fernsehen und Film in Munich, and it bears the marks of something that has been refined and thought about for a significant period of time. In some ways, this makes the film a bit too slick for its own good. Given the morally complex nature of the situations in which the characters find themselves, the film might have benefited from some ragged edges that might suggest aesthetically what the story presents dramatically. Cinematographer Hagen Bogdanski has shot the film in cool shades of gray and green that emphasize the oppressive nature of the East German social system. The only time the space on screen feels open and alive is in Georg's apartment, but even that place of respite is compromised by our knowledge that just upstairs someone is listening.
It was something of a surprise when The Lives of Others took home the 2006 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film over Guillermo Del Toro's popular favorite Pan's Labyrinth, but it's not hard to see why. It's an engrossing story whose deep emotional roots are thoroughly intertwined with its critique of overwrought state power. Von Donnersmarck's greatest achievement is in keeping the dramatic and the political so tightly entangled; it allows us to become engrossed in the pathos of the story without losing sense of the film's underlying message. By the time the story has reached its heady dramatic climax and starts winding down through a series of scenes that find the protagonists in a brave new world after the fall of the Berlin wall, it has achieved a poignancy that transcends politics. The political is always personal.
|The Lives of Others DVD|
|Audio||German Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround|
|Subtitles||English, French, Spanish|
|Distributor||Sony Pictures Home Entertainment|
|Release Date||August 21, 2007|
|VIDEO & AUDIO|
|The anamorphic widescreen transfer of The Lives of Others is beautiful. As director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck discusses in one of the interviews on the disc, he was quite deliberate in choosing particular color schemes to give the film a consistent visual look, and the transfer does a marvelous job of reproducing these. While most of the color palette is composed of drab grays, browns, and other earth tones, there are also splashes of strong primary colors. The image is sharp and well-detailed without any digital artifacting. The Dolby Digital 5.1 surround soundtrack is clean, with strong, clear dialogue; effective, but not attention-grabbing ambient surround effects; and beautiful spaciousness in Gabriel Yared's crucial musical score.|
|Writer/director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, who studied at Oxford and speaks perfect English, provides an excellent, engaging, scene-specific audio commentary. He is particularly thoughtful in discussing the characters and how they fit into German history. He also appears in a half-hour video interview in which he talks about his three-year process of historical research into the Stasi and writing the screenplay, casting the film, and the film's visual look, among other topics. More about the making of the film can be found in “The Making of The Lives of Others, a 20-minute featurette that includes interview with von Donnersmarck; producers Quirin Berg and Max Wiedemann; actors Sebastian Koch, Ulrich Mühe, and Martina Gedeck; and Dr. Manfred Wilke, the film's historical consultant. Unfortunately, there is no behind-the-scenes footage, just interviews, although there is TV footage of the film cleaning up at the Lolas, the German Oscars. There are also seven deleted scenes, which are presented in nonanamorphic widescreen and have optional commentary by von Donnersmarck.|
Copyright ©2007 James Kendrick
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