AFI Fest Report: The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen) Review

Managing Editor; Dallas, Texas (@peteramartin)


After watching thousands of movies in a relatively short lifetime, it's still a mystery how certain films can seep into my pores and surprise me from the inside. Case in point: The Lives of Others.

From outward appearances, it's hard to fathom how the story of a hard-nosed East German State Security operative should matter in this day and age. Yes, it's disturbing that a police state behind the Iron Curtain in 1984 has uncomfortable parallels with more "open" and "free" nations in the West today. But couldn't that be better addressed in a magazine article?

As it happens, The Lives of Others revolves around such an article, and makes a heart-stirring case that cinema can illuminate the printed word in an uncompromising manner that reaches a much broader audience.

In his debut feature, writer/director Florian Henkel von Donnersmarck is wise enough not to smack the viewer over the head with the politics of the early 1980s. If you lived it or learned about it, you don't need another political primer, and if you don't know about it, it's easy to discern from the story.

Wiesler (Ulrich Muhe), the Party loyalist, suspects everyone, even playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch), said to be the only writer left who is read in the West yet still in love with his country. Wiesler is only too happy to investigate Dreyman, which in this case means sitting in the attic of the apartment building where Dreyman lives with his girlfriend Christa-Maria, and monitoring the multitude of microphones that have been planted in the apartment.

Dreyman resists the entreaties of a stronger-minded friend to take an active stand against the repressive government. The most he will do is speak to Minister Hempf (Thomas Thieme), an officious Party boss, in behalf of his friend Jerska (Volkmar Kleinert), a stage director who has been blacklisted and unable to work for years. Dreyman loves writing, loves his girlfriend, loves his country, doesn't like the government's actions, but doesn't see how speaking out will really make a difference.

Christa-Maria (Martina Gedeck) is a well-known stage actress, but she has her own problems. She's insecure about her talents and her relationship with Dreyman: is she starring in his latest play just because she's his girlfriend, or did she really deserve the part? She needs the help of little white pills to get by. Even more worrisome, Minister Hempf has taken a liking to her, and paws her at every opportunity possible.

One further relationship comes into play: Wiesler's State Security superior, Grubitz (Ulrich Tukur). In contrast to Wiesler, who has steely-backed posture and a stern, humorless countenance, Grubitz appears to be a jolly man with an easyoing disposition. Lurking behind his smile, though, is a deep well of ruthless ambition with no empathy either for those who are inclined in any way against the Party, nor for those who threaten his determination to be promoted.

In the accumulation of incidents that occur -- by turns humorous, dramatic, poignant, and chilling -- director Henkel von Donnersmarck builds an all encompassing world that is thoroughly engrossing and all too relevant for viewers everywhere. Namely, at what point do citizens need to act? How far will you allow yourself to be compromised? How far will you go to save yourself? What's the difference between staying quiet and acquiesance?

Everyone will have different answers, and no one really knows how they will act until they are placed in that position. But are any of us in that position now?

The Lives of Others is not to be missed.

The film opened in Germany in March 2006. More release information is available at IMDB. It is scheduled for release in New York and Los Angeles on February 9, 2007. It is Germany's official submission for Best Foreign Language Academy Award.

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