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The Lives of others review

In 1984 the German Democratic Republic (GDR) maintains power via the ubiquitous surveillance operated by the Stasi, the State Secret Police, and their vast network of informers. Their goal is to know everything about the lives of its citizens. Captain Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Muhe) is assigned by his boss Grubitz (Ulrich Tuker) to set up surveillance of famous playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch), who lives with celebrity actress Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck). Dreyman is one of the few writers the Stasi generally trusts not to be subversive, but no-one can be trusted. As the surveillance progresses, both Wiesler and the artists he spies on are influenced by the system's morally untenable sensibilities.

Review by Louise Keller:
There's nothing subtle or restrained about the themes of The Lives Of Others, as it explores oppression and personal liberty under the Secret Police in 80s East Germany. Yet this heart-jolting film from first time writer/director Florian Henkel von Donnersmarck, is told with sublime subtlety. The politics are complex, but never as complex as the resulting human drama, when fear and betrayal are pitted against goodness and enlightenment. The expression 'the walls have ears' might have originated from these times, when apartments were bugged and lives were squashed in the process.

The story about the unexpected humanisation of Captain Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Muhe), a robotic servant of the state, is both devastating and beautiful. Wiesler is as buttoned up as the grey fitted jacket of his uniform, as he eavesdrops and records every intimate detail in the life of urbane, respected playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch). So jaded is Wiesler's view of life, that he is intent to find evidence of Dreyman's subversiveness, and in doing so, score points with his superiors. In particular Culture Minister Bruno Hempf (Thomas Thieme), who has manipulated Dreyman's talented actress girlfriend Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck) into a sexual relationship. We hear that writers are engineers of the soul (a quote attributed to Stalin), and as Wiesler listens in to the writer's life, we watch his expressionless face imagining the pictures that accompany the dialogue he hears through headphones. 'They unwrap presents, then presumably have intercourse,' he types matter-of-factly into his concise report.

Muhe's performance is outstanding, as he transforms from a shell of a man leading an empty existence to a human being deeply involved in the couples' lives. The pivotal moment for Wiesler comes when he hears Dreyman playing Bach's achingly beautiful 'Sonata for a Good Man' on the piano. 'Can anyone who has truly heard this, be a bad person,' he hears Dreyman ask. As his admiration for Dreyman grows in line with his infatuation with Sieland (both are perfectly cast), the observer becomes a participant, in a remarkable turnaround.

Every detail is beautifully captured - the claustrophobic mood, the undercurrent of terror, and the symbolic red ribbon of the hidden typewriter with which Dreyman writes his subversive cover article for the West's Spiegel Magazine. The final reel lunges at the heart and brings not only surprises, but a closing scene that reverberates as one of the most succinctly perfect and profoundly moving. Twisting perspectives on lives, actions and consequences, this magnificent film satisfies on every level.

Review by Andrew L. Urban:
It is worth noting at the start that The Lives of Others won the Best Foreign Language Oscar presented in February 2007. It is also worth noting that the film, which has won several other awards and/or nominations) is Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's debut as writer/director. It's a profoundly affecting film, wonderfully layered with characters whose moral choices are the stuff of which the film is made. A riveting drama, the film explores morality on several levels.

The writing is sparse, articulate and intelligent, as are all the performances, with Ulrich Mühe the standout as the Stasi official whose emotional journey is at the film's heart. Indeed, the heart is what is most engaged in this film, closely followed by the intellect. But all the cast excels; one of my favourite moments is near the end, a few years after the collapse of the Berlin wall and the old guard of East German politics is out of power. Bruno Hempf, a Minister in the disgraced and debunked regime, superbly played by Thomas Thierne, meets Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) in the theatre where Dreyman's famous play is again being staged. Dreyman ends the exchange saying how extraordinary it is that "people like you" once ruled a country. Thierne's face, as he turns away, speaks volumes, as if to say "people like me are exactly the kind of people who run countries".

And that is but one moment in a film filled with them; and the final half hour is a nail biting thriller as the Stasi apparatus closes on Dreyman, who is suspected of being the author of an article that appeared in a Werst German magazine, discussing the high rate of suicides in East Germany - and the lack of statistics or records kept about them. Imagine if that article was enough to ruin his career and land him in jail, what depth of control the Communist regime was intent on imposing on its citizens. Here is a film that shows on an intimate human scale the effect of oppressive political regimes on daily life. Ironically, these regimes do it in the name of their people.

Writers are engineers of the soul, a character says quoting another source, and this story proves how true that is; the writer Dreyman does indeed engineer a soul or two, and we are witness to it.

Courtesy Andrew L Urban

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