Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The Lives of Others

Directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck.
2006. Rated R, 137 minutes.
Ulrich Muhe
Martina Gedeck
Ulrich Tukur
Thomas Thieme
Hans-Uwe Bauer
Volkmar Kleinert
Matthias Brenner

In 1984, East Germany is still fiercely ruled by the German Democratic Republic, The GDR, and is a strictly socialist nation. The ruling party expends lots of resources spying on citizens they suspect of working against their interests. Many are jailed while many others are coerced into becoming informants. Not surprisingly, many of the people they are keeping tabs on are heavily involved with the arts. After all, creative endeavors require the freest thinkers. We're told every writer in the country is under surveillance except one, Georg Dreyman (Koch). He is the only one whose work is not considered subversive. That all changes after some higher-ups take in a performance of his latest play. The decision is made to bug his apartment and see exactly what he's up to. This is where Cpt. Wiesler (Muhe) comes in. He heads up the operation and soon finds out there is a lot more going on than making sure Georg is being a good socialist.

Wiesler is a fascinating character. On the surface, he's all about strict adherence to the party and its protocols. Beneath that, we can see where he's lacking and how this affects him. Over the course of the movie, our task becomes deciding whether we're watching him unravel or merely get in touch with his own humanity. Maybe he's doing both. Ulrich Muhe displays this through a wonderfully understated performance. Without the showy moments of some of his co-stars, he conveys everything necessary for us to understand his character.

Muhe is far from alone in his effectiveness. Martina Gedeck is thoroughly conflicted as Crista, Georg's girlfriend who finds herself in a tricky situation. As Georg himself, Sebastian Koch is perfectly confused by all that's going on around him while trying to maintain several facades of his own. Thomas Thieme and Ulrich Tukur play Minister of Culture Hempf and Lt. (?) Grubitz, respectively. They give us the villain and his top henchman. Both are intimidating, made more so by the conviction of their beliefs. The movie itself doesn't share them, but is smart enough to show that these men truly feel they are doing what is necessary to maintain the order of things as they feel it should be.

The Lives of Others, or Das Leben der Anderen in its native German, may lose some viewers along the way. This is because this film is a slow burn and not a spontaneous combustion. It seems to meander where it is really establishing the various dynamics at play. It can appear random where it is actually giving us important information about the behavior of the characters. Most of all, it comes across as just a political thriller. Bubbling just beneath the surface, however, is a very human tale. Sure, it makes a somewhat obvious social comment by the time it ends. What's more important than that is that it studies the people involved and their understanding of the world.

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