DAS LEBEN DER ANDEREN / THE LIVES OF OTHERS: a review from IFFR 2007
Last Saturday “Das Leben der Anderen“ won the KPN Audience Award at IFFR 2007. It is also the biggest chance of “Pan’s Labyrinth” NOT winning the Oscar for Best Foreign Picture. The end of the movie gave me goosebumps, not in the cinema but during the drive home afterwards and again whilst talking about it with colleagues the next day at work.
There are reasons for that, but first and foremost this is because the movie is very, very good.
Story synopsis: it’s 1984 in Eastern Germany (both literally and figuratively) and Wiesler is an elder officer from the feared German secret police, also known as the STASI. He is the information equivalent of a ninja. A totally dedicated professional, Wiesler is so good at extracting useful information out of suspected state enemies that he teaches it at the STASI’s training grounds, and the film starts with him showing students the intricacies of interrogating someone for 40 hours straight.
His excellence is renowned amongst his superiors in the STASI, who enlist his help in finding dirt on a writer they find suspicious. Wiesler accepts gladly, but is dismayed to find the writer to be a model citizen who accidentally has walked into the crosshairs of some very corrupt officials.
Although Wiesler is portrayed as a monster, you quickly learn that he is what he is because he believes he’s doing the right thing. He’s not after promotion or glory, it’s his sense of duty which drives him. Once he finds out that his talents are squandered by someone for petty reasons he loses his enthusiasm. As the case becomes clearer and clearer, Wiesler slowly turns from secret enemy to secret admirer, to something resembling a guardian angel.
But the game he plays is terribly dangerous for everyone involved. His colleagues and superiors are far from stupid, and no-one knows the consequences of failure better than Wiesler himself.
To say more would be a crime, but rest assured that a bumpy road lies ahead of all characters. And as I already said, for me the ending is a knock-out.
Where to begin? Everything just works, and it is very difficult to believe this is director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s first feature (and man, is this going to be difficult to top!). He takes a subject which is still kind of hush-hush in re-united Germany, and I can remember when citizens were allowed to see their STASI-dossiers. Suddenly people discovered that family members, loved ones, neighbours were responsible for providing the information which had led to their incarceration and torture. The movie clearly shows in a few bold strokes just how terribly large the information network of the secret police was, and its weight can be felt every minute of the movie. It’s even being joked about so the audience gets some relieve from the tension.
The actors are marvelous, with special mention of Ulrich Muhe who plays Wiesler. He gives a chilling portrayal of a man reluctantly driven to something approaching heroism. The cinematography is good as well, painting the decay of the DDR in a million shades of gray. At over 130 minutes the movie doesn’t feel like a long one, no mean feat considering Florian doesn’t get to use the pepper and salt of cinema (sex and violence) often. He tells a simple story but he tells it well.
This was my highest rated movie this festival. How that works is explained on the IFFR website, but in short: when you enter the cinema you get a card with the numbers 1 to 5 on it. These stand for:
1: very bad,
4: good, and
5: very good.
After a showing you tear the card at the number you want to give and dump it in the basket at the exit. These are counted afterwards and the rating is the mean average of what’s on the cards. Das Leben der Anderen got an average of 4.82, and when you realize there’s always the odd person who gives a 1, just calculate how many people must have given a 5 to get that average. Out of the 1275 votes far more than a 1000 must have given it a 5. It sure as hell got mine.
It may have been Hollywood-ised a bit to be able to please the crowds but not in ways which disturb me. So what more can I say? Nothing, except that I absolutely recommend this.