The Lives of Others (2006)
Starring: Martina Gedeck, Ulrich Mühe, Sebastian Koch, Ulrich Tukur, Thomas Thieme
Directed by: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
When I review highly-regarded “serious” pictures, I usually like to make a point of discussing how, beyond their dramatic and artistic achievement, they are also quite entertaining. I understand that a lot of people like to watch movies as an escape, and thus view watching serious movies akin to eating their vegetables — they know its good for them, but they were looking for pizza. So I like to point out that, for instance, Munich might be a historical look at a dark incident in our history, but it’s also an exciting spy movie full of explosions. Or, The Last King of Scotland might be harrowing look at former Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, but its also an exciting thriller. Because the truth is, a movie need not be stupid in order to be entertaining.
I say this because Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck‘s The Lives of Others, winner of the Best Foreign Language Academy Award for 2006, is an excellent, poignant look at East Germany five years before the fall of the Berlin War. It is well crafted, well acted, and touching. But… it’s very much a vegetables-type serious movie. It’s excellent, but doesn’t get anywhere near exciting until the movie is well underway, and you’ve become invested in the characters.
Of course, for myself, quality films are entertainment in of themselves. But, I understand when its a Friday night and you’re looking to recover from the work week and want to be entertained, not challenged. This is a perfectly acceptable way to watch movies, and if that’s what you’re looking for, then I suggest you watch something other than The Lives of Others. But when you’re ready for excellence, you could do worse than watching this.
The Lives of Others tells the interconnected stories of Captain Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe), a Stasi officer tasked to spy on playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch), under suspicion of Western leanings. As the determined and loyal Weisler gets to know Dreyman and his world better (including his relationship with actress Christa-Maria Sieland, Martina Gedeck, who Weisler’s superior Minister Bruno Hempf, Thomas Thieme, is pursuing, which led to the investigation of Dreyman), the formerly by-the-book Wiesler starts to protect Dreyman and become disillusioned with the oppression of the State. At the same time, Dreyman, the formerly loyal (or at least complacent) patriot becomes disillusioned with the GDR’s treatment of fellow artists, and begins to take actions that could see him imprisoned were it not for Wiesler’s sympathy.
The build up to a rather stirring climax is gradual, as the movie comfortably introduces us to its characters and organically develops their motivations and changes of heart. There are times early in the film that feel a little slow and stifling, but these moments add to the atmosphere of the film that captures the drab uniformity of Communist Germany. For most of the movie, the moments are small and natural, until they build on top of one another, investing you in the characters so the climax, while not flashy, still leaves you speechless. Following the climax, the movie takes us ahead a few years, achieving a heart-achingly poignant ending that moved me more than I expected. Everything in the movie happened so naturally and assuredly that I didn’t realise how attached I had become to the characters until the final scene.
All in all, The Lives of Others is an excellent movie that’s not for those looking for a relaxing evening. It’s a quiet, self-assured character study and historical piece that focuses on a part of Western history usually overlooked in this part of the world, where the whole of German history is seemingly limited to the years 1939-1945. You might have to get in the right mood to watch The Lives of Others, but once you do, you’ll be glad you did.