Eavesdropping as the path to enlightenment

The Lives of Others

on February 09, 2007 by Kevin Courrier
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A delicate cross between a Robert Ludlum political thriller and Francis Coppola's voyeuristic nightmare The Conversation, The Lives of Others, which swept the German Film Awards, is a fascinating look into the political and psychological underpinnings of communist control in the former German Democratic Republic. Director/writer Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck doesn't simply provide a cursory morality tale about the evils of totalitarianism; instead he creates a multi-layered drama examining the makeup of the totalitarian mind.

Captain Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Muhe) is one of the top agents with the Stasi secret police who is assigned to do audio surveillance over one of East Germany's most gifted -- and loyal -- playwrights. Along with his actress wife (Martina Gedeck), Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) is a champion of communism, but his dashing charisma and his wife's rising star have attracted the paranoia of the Politburo. Captain Wiesler, like Coppola's Harry Caul, is a cipher with no inner life who preys upon the lives of others in order to define himself. One day, though, he is so moved while listening to Dreyman play the piano concerto of a recently deceased friend that his life begins to change.

While the picture has a Kafkaesque logic, The Lives of Others isn't as pervasively buggy as The Conversation. Muhe is remarkably subtle playing a hollow man who slowly finds his soul. Koch's Dreyman has the guarded flamboyance of an instinctually independent artist. He puts on the airs of a true believer, but somewhere deep down he suspects that the State doesn't share his best interests. Gedeck has the more difficult role as the actress whose insecurity the Secret Police exploits. The part is almost too cliched (i.e., the actor without a soul), but Gedeck still manages to provide ghostly nuances. The Lives of Others takes place only a few years before Glasnost started the thaw that ultimately took down the Berlin Wall. This unflinchingly brave picture shows what came down with it. Distributor: Sony Classics
Cast: Ulrich Muhe, Sebastian Koch and Martina Gedeck
Director/Screenwriter: Florian Henckel von Donnersmark
Producers: Quirin Berg and Max Wiedermann
Genre: Drama; German-language, subtitled
Rating: R for some sexuality/nudity
Running time: 137 min.
Release date: February 9, 2007

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