on 23 July 2007
Utterly, utterly wonderful. This is a story of redemption and atonement and explores whether, and to what extent, they are possible. The contrast of the personal joy, love, friendship, kinship and art, against the backdrop and circumstance of the 1984 GDR is completely sublime and the direction is faultless. It is the acting that is jaw-dropping though - an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film is fantastic recognition, but at least three of the four major acting gongs would have found a more deserved home here. The ending is the most appropriate and well edited I have ever come across and left me in tears - a personal first for any film. I cannot give it higher praise than the truth - I have never seen better cinema than this. Enjoy.
on 23 December 2007
This film holds you spellbound. I saw it first in the cinema and you could have heard a pin drop. Had read the critics rave reviews particularly about one actor but didn't realise who it was until about half hour into the film. Ulrich Muhe is absolutely superb in his role as the Stasi Officer. He gives a faultless performance. He dominates every scene. How sad to find out he died not too long after making this film. This film is without doubt the best film I have seen in many years. The atmosphere of the GDR inhibits you. The horrors and loss of liberty suddenly become real to the viewer in a way that has never been portrayed before. Fantastic direction of superb actors at a magnificent pace. Buy this and add it to your collection, it will become a classic.
The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen) is one of the best films I've seen in a long, long time. It's sad, thoughtful and redemptive, and it deals with major themes. We're in East Germany a few years before the fall of the Berlin wall. The Stasi are everywhere, watching everyone and punishing in brutal or subtle ways anyone who might be even an implied threat to the government. Their greatest tool is the system of informers that reaches everywhere, people who may relay indiscretions to the Stasi because they believe in what they are doing, but more often are compromised into doing so. People are given terrible choices to either work with the Stasi as informers or see their careers or their children's futures destroyed. One-third of the East German population is kept under Stasi surveillance. Everyone, it seems, is being watched by someone.
Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) is a playwright who has made his accommodations with the regime, has won awards and has learned not to go too far. The mere fact that he is seen as reliable makes him a subject of Stasi interest. That, and because his lover, the actress Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck), is coveted by a powerful official who wants Dreyman ruined. Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Muhe), a dedicated, colorless Stasi officer, noted for his reliability and interrogation skills, is assigned the job of monitoring Dreyman. This means installing bugs in Dreyman's apartment where Dreyman lives with Sieland, setting up 24 hour monitoring, recording everything and preparing reports. Wiesler takes his share of listening in. Weisler seems to have no purpose but his dedication to the ideals of the East German system, but even he can see the corruption of those ideals. He has no friends to speak of except his boss, who knows which way the wind can shift. Dreyman, on the other hand, is a handsome man of talent who loves Christa and who has seen a close friend and talented director banned from the theater for speaking too clearly. Dreyman gradually finds the conscience he had put on hold in order to be successful. Wiesler gradually finds himself, through listening in, drawn to an awareness of the compromises and corruption he knows has seeped into a system he once believed in. Even more subtly, he finds himself drawn into the lives of Dreyman and Christa-Maria. Slowly, cautiously and anonymously, Wiesler begins to protect Dreyman. All the while we are witness to the pervasive spying on people, the pettiness, the corruption of authority, the use of subtle threats to keep people in line, the almost comic meticulousness of the Stasi and their obsessive record keeping on everyone. The conclusion of the film brings us well past the fall of the Berlin wall, when the full evidence of Stasi spying and the corruption of so many to be informers became evident. We see what happened to both Dreyman and Wiesler. I found the ending to be very, very emotional.
This was director von Donnersmarck's first feature film. He also was the writer. The acting is just as good as the film, particularly Muhe, Koch and Gedeck. Muhe has perhaps the toughest job. He has to show us this dedicated functionary first relentlessly breaking a suspect through calm, psychological questioning, then gradually, gradually letting us see Wiesler's doubts and humanity as he listens into to the lives of Dreyman and Sieland. Muhe makes us aware of Wiesler's changing outlook no faster than Weisler becomes aware of them himself. It's a subtle, strong performance.
on 22 March 2008
Upon hearing the rave reviews for this film and noticing that it had won Best Foreign Picture at the Oscars, I was expecting to be a little disappointed. How wrong I was. This film does nothing spectacularly different or innovative. It just tells its story and tells it extremely well.
The acting is amazing and if the Oscars had any credibility then Ulrich Muhe would have been nominated in the best actor category. His character starts off as cold and not very likeable, however, we gradually warm to him and by the end my opinion of him had changed utterly. I've only learned upon reading this page that Muhe died shortly after completing this film. It really is a fitting tribute.
It's one of the few films that has moved me to tears by the end and it wasn't achieved by cheap sentimentality but a genuinely moving story and fantastic performances all round.
on 7 May 2007
"The lives of others" (= "Das leben der anderen") is a wonderful film directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, that won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film. Truth to be told, I hadn't heard his name before, but I'm certain that I won't forget it now. This film, his debut as a director, is simply exceptional. An engaging political thriller, this movie is at the same time a complex study regarding the power of choices, and the way we behave when faced to our worst fears.
The story is set in East Germany in 1984, when the lack of freedom and the zeal of the Secret Police (Stasi) were pervasive. Captain Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe) is an agent that specializes in discovering "traitors", that is, those that don't agree with everything that the government says. Wiesler is very good at his job, and has no mercy for those that don't add up to his ideal of what a good socialist should be.
That is probably the reason why his superior assigns him the task of of spying on Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch), a well-known socialist playwright that is nonetheless suspicious, due to his friends. Dreyman lives with his girlfriend, Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck), a talented actress that loves him but has sexual trysts with a powerful government official that promises her that she will never be in the black list of artist that cannot work.
As Wiesler learns more about the couple, thanks to the hidden microphones his team installed in their apartment, he starts warming towards them. He even protects them when Dreyman becomes actively involved in "subversive" activities, as a reaction to the suicide of a friend that had been blacklisted. But how far will Wiesler risk himself? And can human beings really change?
Strangely enough, "The lives of others" tackles those difficult questions in a manner that leaves nothing to be desired, and makes you think almost involuntarily about many more that have to do with them. On the whole, I must say that I cannot recommend this film strongly enough. Please don't miss it...
Belen Alcat, May 2007
on 22 August 2007
This is an excellent film, but one cannot buy from Amazon UK with confidence because it does not state what region it sells from the UK outlet. The US outlet states that the release is region A only, i.e., it will not play on European Blu-Ray players, which are region B. Amazon should tidy up this aspect of classification of HD discs since they are losing sales to other online shops that have got their act together.
on 3 March 2008
Once in a while, a film comes along, totally unexpectedly, and reveals itself as not just a great film but one that renews your faith in cinema and stays with you long after it has ended. One that shows that film can be the most worthy art form and one which makes you realise this is what the best of cinema really is - intelligent, substantial and made with integrity without employing silly melodramatic contrivances. The Lives of Others is such a film, undoubtedly one of the best films I've seen in the last decade, an intelligent study of a cold, emotionally stern man who undergoes an emotional awakening and humanizing effect by slowly becoming aware of the richness of life that is eluding his own austere existence.
The man in question is Gerd Weisler, a Stasi officer in East Germany in the mid 1980's. He's distrusting and quietly imposing, stands by the socialist ideals of his government and is determined to uncover political dissent wherever possible. He is simply a cog in the regime. There is nothing to warm to, no personality, individuality or life in him. He's a robot worker and nothing else. That is until he is called upon to spy on an artist couple in their apartment who may or may not be up to something. We first see Wiesler's distrust of the writer in an early scene, a distrust based on nothing more than a gut feeling - or perhaps from a twang of jealousy of this man's obvious contentment and fulfillment. To Wiesler, he is simply "arrogant" and so must be a cause for concern. I don't need to go into any more detail about the plot here but needless to say it paves the way for some moments of high tension and clever plot devices.
However, it's what happens to Wiesler's character throughout that really pushes the buttons and makes for such a lasting impression. His transformation from perpetrator to defector, from hunter to protector. During his surveillance mission, he hears everything the couple say and do, mechanically jotting down every last detail in a notebook and then typing up reports. And so he begins to experience the couple's life vicariously and slowly starts to realise that he wants, needs what they have and that he doesn't - friends, love, beauty, fulfillment. We see him start to change, to restrain himself in situations where he would usually impose himself, we see wonderful key moments where he displays acts of kindness and reveals emotions we didn't think he would be capable of. He ends up surprising us, redeeming himself by risking his career and life for the artists, by calmly deflecting the suspicions of his wily superiors about his integrity to the cause, protecting the inevitably tragic couple from above like some personal guardian angel completely unbeknownst to them, who have no idea they are even under surveillance.
Such a character study would be nothing without a great actor and Ulrich Mühe plays the role perfectly, it's hard to imagine anyone else playing it (what a real shame he passed away recently). His role recalls that of Billy Bob Thornton's in The Man Who Wasn't There, someone who hardly says two words but expresses everything beautifully through his body language and facial expressions. We see him in many different states during the course of the film; from a sometimes menacing and ice cold authoritative instructor and interrogator for the Stasi through to a simple menial state postal worker, allowing time to pass him by as he plods along on his route. He is always believable and an interesting character to watch unfold. The rest of the acting is also first rate, especially from Wiesler's Stasi superiors.
Despite the obvious differences, I would sum up The Lives of Others as a The Shawshank Redemption for this decade because of its significant emotional arc. It has a beautifully controlled, unrushed poetic approach and you get the feeling that the filmmaker (also a debut) has put all he has into it, has fashioned it with a lot of care and attention. You could also say that like Shawshank, it follows a man's escape from an oppressive and dehumanising regime to become human once again. Also, the happy ending is perfectly understated and although Wiesler doesn't exactly end up finding happiness, he's afforded a sort of standing ovation at the end and his final words in the film will certainly bring a lump to your throat. You'll want to pat him on the back and shake his hand. An unsung hero given and appreciating the recognition he deserves.
on 29 April 2007
1984 is an inauspicious date for the setting of this fine movie about the East German autocracy. Whereas films like 'Goodbye Lenin' inspired a trend of nostalgia (coined as OSTalgia) for the GDR, 'The Life of Others' paints a more realistic picture. In a thoughtful, humane work, Stasi captain Gerd Wiesler is given a surveillance mission to spy on playwright Georg Dreyman and his actress girlfriend Christa-Maria Sieland. Weisler is an unquestioning party loyalist and cog in the Stasi machinery who takes pleasure in his thorough and exacting approach to such a mission. A dilligent professional, he is certainly not a sadist, but simply an automaton who divests emotional responsibility in the careful pursuit of his work. There is a brilliant early scene at the theatre where he is given his mission. Sitting in the Gods you are made privvy to the global perspective of a surveillance expert, the professional pleasure in his cold assessment of the situation. However, in a plot with shades of Francis Ford Copolla's masterpiece The Conversation, he find himself slowly drawn to the couple and ultimately implicated in their fate. Although it could also be suggested that there is a hint of 'Rear Window' about the story, Weisler's gradual softening of perspective is less Hitchcock-style obsession or voyeurism but rather about a lonely man warmed vicariously by the live and loves of others (hence the title).
Georg and Christa-Maria's existence is one (un)governed by the senses, by friendship and romance. Their flat is warmly photographed as a haven of free expression, of literature, music and art. By contrast Weisler returns to his spartan appartment with only state propagandist television for company or entertainment. Furthermore, the soft warm tones of the couple's home is shown in stark opposition to Weisler's austere attic surveillance center, itself drained of almost all colour. Weisler chalks a map of the couples' flat on the bare floorboards of the gloomy attic, further illustrating his immersion in their lives but also his isolation from it. Brilliantly cast, Ulrich Mühe's Weisler has the emotionally fridgid and dispassionate features of a lobotomised Kevin Spacey. As his heart thaws, his expression softens in the subtlest of degrees, his marble eyes acquiring a human liquidity. In one scene, when Weisler weeps to the sound of Georg playing the piano, a tear erupts from his unchanged face as if the ice within him has melted. His emotional distance is also emphasised in another starkly lit scene in which Weisler has a brutally perfuntary encounter with a prostitute who makes it clear his time is on the meter. It's a understated masterpiece that - despite its sinister and ultimately tragic themes - doesn't resort to explicit violence or melodrama. It is also given levity by the subtlety of Ulrich Mühe's performance, and the humanity of the ending, which I won't spoil by divulging here.
An enormously powerful tale of human redemption, the Lives of Others takes the oft-ignored story (in the UK at least) of the Stasi, and how it willfully destroyed the lives of East German citizens in perversely minor - but devastating - ways. It also captures many other elements of the world behind the iron curtain: the dullness and inaninity of life in East Berlin is brilliantly restored (indeed it seems incredible that communism was such a recent phenomenon); the corruption of party members; the cruelty and political games censorship imposes; the closeted lives of East Germans (everyone in the world it seems is aware of the Berlin Wall falling, except those in East Berlin).
At the heart of the film is the late Ulrich Muhe, who we see evolve from cold-hearted Stasi apparatchik to underminer of the organization's ways. In a superbly constructed performance, we see how he recognizes the inanity of East Germany and all that the Stasi represent. At the same time, this purportedly strong man is subtly shown to be a sad and lonely individual.
At the film's critical juncture, The Lives of Others combines the elements of unexpectedness that made the Shawshank Redemption great, and the moment of chance that defined Lolita. At this point I thought the credits would roll, but it went on for another three, telling scenes. The beautifully understated conclusion made me weep. Film of the year by a mile; Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant.
on 13 February 2007
Gerd Weisler (Ulrich Muhe, appropriately drab) is an East German Stasi (Secret Police) drone: the type of man that his superiors count on to "get" his prey. Early on in this fascinating, superior film, Gerd arrives home from a hard day of spying on his fellow East Germans and prepares a meal: microwaved white rice onto which he squeezes tomato paste from a tube. This scene, in its spare, workmanlike manner sets the course and adjusts the sights of this film: the unremarkable, out of hate and jealousy assigned to bring down those deemed different, those deemed remarkable, those deemed talented. Weisler is the perfect Stasi automaton: a socialist monk with ice-cold eyes and an incorruptible true believer's faith in the system he has sworn to defend against "enemies of socialism" no matter where he finds them.
"The Lives of Others" begins in 1984 a particularly Orwellian date and 5 years before the fall of the Berlin Wall, Weisler is invited to a night of theater by his school friend and boss Colonel Grubitz (a slimy bureaucrat performance by Ulrich Tukor) for a performance of a play written by Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) and starring Dreyman's live in girlfriend, Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck from "Mostly Martha"). Dreyman is tall, handsome, dresses in colors other than grey and Christa-Maria is wondrously gorgeous and a great actress to boot.
As Weisler watches Christa-Maria on stage he also scopes in on Dreyman, via his opera binoculars, watching Christa-Maria with love and admiration. The look of distrust and envy in Wailer's eyes is frightening: his eyes widen, squint and widen again. What does Weisler see or sense on that triumphant, for Dreyman and Sieland, night? Is it watching them basking in the glory of an audience's love and appreciation? Is it the palpable love and warmth between the two themselves: something that Weisler has never, will never feel? Whatever it is, Weisler has found his next assignment.
Though Dreyman is deemed "the only writer we have who is not subversive," Weisler forces the issue and sets up a full Stasi surveillance: bugs, cameras and sets up a roost for himself in the attic of the Dreyman-Sieland home.
Then in the process of spying on these two warm, happy, talented, loving people something happens to Weisler: he slowly, through the ugly process of spying, thaws little by little: Weisler falls in love with them and more to the point.., he falls in love with their lives.
First time director, Florien Hinkle von Donnersmarck has produced a remarkable, involving, intelligent film: an intricate, frightening film full of lives caught at the difficult crossroads of patriotism on the one hand and on the other the vortex of individual duty and honor.