Movie review by Greg Carlson
The latest Oscar winner for Best Foreign Film, “The Lives of Others” is a well-observed and often suspenseful drama that manages a satisfying payoff despite a leisurely pace and an overstuffed running time. The feature debut of Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, “The Lives of Others” reconstructs mid-1980s East Germany, where the Ministerium für Staatssicherheit, or Ministry for State Security, has embarked on an Orwellian project of intimidation and surveillance against any citizen suspected of disagreeing with the official policies of the GDR. Naturally, artists and writers are frequent targets of the Stasi creeps, and “The Lives of Others” powerfully links together predators and prey.
In an eerie eavesdropping mission, by-the-book agent Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Muhe) sets up an elaborate network of bugging equipment in the apartment that playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) shares with his lover, acclaimed stage actor Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck). Wiesler’s attitude begins to shift, however, once he discovers that a high-ranking official has authorized the operation merely because he intends to sexually blackmail Sieland and move Dreyman out of the way. As he listens to each and every intimate detail coming from the tapped dwelling, Wiesler finds himself taken with the private lives of his subjects, and he begins to alter his reports even as the stakes begin to escalate.
Following the suicide of one of Dreyman’s close artistic collaborators, the writer pens a biting editorial that is subsequently smuggled past the border, causing a minor media stir that embarrasses Wielser’s superior. The Stasi reels in Sieland for interrogation, forcing Wielser to make a series of dangerous decisions revolving around the film’s MacGuffin, a portable typewriter with a red ink ribbon. Even though the movie doesn’t trade much in action, the terrifying intrusions of government heavies expressionlessly rifling through personal property has a chilling effect.
One of the movie’s unique thematic linkages revolves around the shifting emotional allegiances of Wieland and Dreyman as the two men unwittingly find themselves at the center of a sticky web. Frustratingly, the movie struggles to unlock the emotional core of either man, leaving viewers to wonder to some degree how they arrive at their risky decisions. Sieland functions on some level as a muse for both, and “The Lives of Others” wryly suggests that both Wieland and Dreyman depend on the artistry of their writing ability to make their way through a Kafkaesque bureaucracy where saying the wrong thing could cost someone his or her freedom.
While the movie begins just a few years prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall, an extended post-climax coda knits together a few story threads that take place after the Wall’s collapse. These scenes resonate with the viewer, provoking thought about how people, and particularly artists, intellectuals, and dissidents, manage to make meaning of their lives and work when residing in an oppressive society. The film’s strongest stroke resides in Wiesler’s profound change from hardcore loyalist to compassionate sympathizer, and the film really takes flight once Wiesler involves himself directly with those he has been monitoring. That Wiesler’s portrayer Muhe was spied upon by the Stasi adds a fascinating layer to the drama.
This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 3/26/07.