Monday, February 20, 2012

100 Movies - No. 52: The Lives of Others

52. The Lives of Others (2006)
Drama, Thriller, 137 minutes, German Language
Directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
Starring Ulrich Muhe, Sebastian Koch and Martina Gedeck

Most of us have never grown up in a regime that denies us freedom of speech, freedom of thought, or freedom of belief. Those terms were part of my study material leading up to my Canadian citizenship test which I took in January. Now, after swearing an oath and becoming Canadian, I'm reminded how precious those freedoms are. If you were born in East Germany before the wall fell, or in other parts of Eastern Europe, you will understand how different life was just over 20 years ago.

The Lives of Others is set in East Germany in 1984 and it focuses on some of the freedoms I mentioned above. We see a man interrogating a prisoner sometime in his past, and then watch him teach the importance of the techniques to a class of students. He's an expert in human behavior and body language and can tell when someone is lying. He also notes subversive behavior throughout society, right down to the students in his class. He's Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler and he's a member of the Stasi; a government secret police force.

The story focuses on author Georg Dreyman (Koch) and his actress girlfriend Christa-Maria Sieland (Gedeck). Dreyman writes plays and one event in particular inspires him to write a book outlining the oppressive regime in East Germany. Put yourself in his situation for a moment. Who would you trust with your ideas? How would you try to get the book published in Western Europe?

Wiesler suspects something and thinks that Dreyman should be under surveillance, so he offers to supervise the operation himself. His team bugs Dreyman's apartment and Wiesler listens from his hideaway in the roof of the building, writing daily activity reports on Dreyman and his associates.

As the story progresses, Wiesler starts to think about his role and the purpose of his life. He's following orders, but is he doing the right thing? One of the themes early in the movie is that people remain true to their nature, but what is Wiesler's true nature? And so begins a powerful story of an author's fight to make his opinions known, and the intervention of Wiesler.

The three main actors all give terrific performances, but it's Muhe as Wiesler who steals the show. Pay close attention to your own feelings as you watch this film and note what happens to your opinion of Wiesler. The Lives of Others is a realistic and moving account that will evoke strong emotions if you allow yourself to be drawn in. If you are worried about subtitled movies, this is one that deserves your attention, so please don't let that stop you. I thoroughly enjoyed Pan's Labyrinth, but The Lives of Others rightly won the Oscar that year. It's one of the best foreign language films ever made.

If you like The Lives of Others:

I'm not going to suggest movies involving spying or secret government departments as there are plenty of those. Instead, I would consider watching Revanche. It's an intimate little film on a much smaller scale than The Lives of Others, but it closely examines the motivations of its characters. Some are obvious, but what isn't obvious is its conclusion. It shows how people make up their own minds about what matters most in life. The characters come to an unusual mutual understanding as a result. Like The Lives of Others, it's a German language film.

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  1. Nice review. We watched this at school but the film ran longer than the actual class so we didn't watch it in its entirety. I need to finish it soon.

  2. Hi Fernando,

    The ending is superb; especially the final line of dialogue. I think you'll be happy when you see how it ends.

  3. (Spoiler alert!) Steve! Thank you for putting me onto this film. I think this was primarily a film about Wiesler, about the transformation of a lonely man who had thus far put idealism before emotion and human contact, and in doing so, in a way lost sight of the ideal of socialism. Dreyman and Sieland were the catalysts but their story is secondary to his -- it was their humanity that reached him and enabled him to find his own. His observations (his surveillance became increasingly voyeuristic as he became more obsessed) of their love and passion, something he hadn't experienced, stirred his conscience and his reason and forced him to question the motives of the Stasi. By the time he finds out the motives for the surveillance are purely personal (not political) and that his superiors are corrupt, he's already emotionally invested and almost powerless to stop himself on the trajectory he's taken. And the end is pure poetry.
    This is my favourite kind of film. It's understated and intelligent, and therein lies its power. Every scene slowly reveals layers upon layers, and racks up the tension until you get a sense of what it must have been like, to always be on your guard. You're left wondering if you can keep up with the secrets and lies. Just when you lose all faith, that it can't be done, there's a beautiful surprise waiting. After all, hope dies last.

  4. Hi Sam,

    (Spoiler Alert)

    Yes, it's definitely Wiesler's story. I love that last line of dialogue after the clerk asks him if he wants the book wrapped. Remember the person who told the joke in the canteen too? Don't we see him steaming envelopes with Wiesler when the wall fell, or was that just my imagination?

    1. No, that was definitely him. That's what I mean about it being a layered film. I think if we could have understood German there would have been even more.

  5. I sometimes wonder whether I should learn French because I like so many French films. Japanese just to appreciate Studio Ghibli seems excessive though, even for me.

    1. LOL. Some of my favourites are French too! Jean de Florette, Manons Des Sources, Les Visiteurs, Betty Blue ... How about you? Any you can recommend to me?

  6. My favorite French films are included in the 100 movies series:

    The Double Life of Veronique
    Three Colors Trilogy
    The 400 Blows
    The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
    Play Time

    Also - Tell No One and Certified Copy

    1. I'm going to work through your list, starting with les francais. ;)

  7. The Double Life of Veronique and Three Colors (especially Red) are incredibly beautiful films.

    If you like Amelie, I strongly recommend A Very Long Engagement (same director and lead actress).

    Have fun :)

  8. Been meaning to catch this since forever - great review.

  9. Hi Deryn,

    It really is a fantastic film, right up to the very end.