the film snob

A cyberspace journal about my experiences as an NYU film school grad student, reviews of current and classic films, film and TV news, and the rants and raves of an admitted (and unapologetic) film snob.

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Esse Quam Videri -- To be, rather than to appear

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

The Lives of Others

NOTE: A few months back, I had a chance to see one of the best films of last year (I will update my Best Of 2006 list accordingly) though I am just now finding the time to write about it. While the film is no longer in theaters, it should arrive on DVD shortly and I highly encourage everyone to see it.

Meta•mor•pho•sis, noun, from the Greek. 1a: change of physical form, structure, or substance; 1b: a striking alteration in appearance, character, or circumstances. 2: a typically marked and more or less abrupt developmental change in the form or structure of an animal.

The Lives of Others — winner of the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film — is cast in gray, swaddled in shadows, set in drab, spartan rooms, positioned beneath an overcast, dreary sky, and populated with mostly unsmiling automatons.

This is East Germany, circa the mid-1980s and the Communist German Democratic Republic’s secret police, or Stasi keeps a malevolent eye on the population, watching icily for any aberration of behavior or philosophy. Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe) is one of the Stasi’s best, an unwavering believer in his country’s way of life and the need for absolute vigilance to enforce it. He is the perfect company tool, emotionless and utterly colorless, a robot who never questions orders and carries them out without sentiment or passion.

Wiesler prides himself on being able to detect even the minutest anomaly in the lives of those he watches. When a colleague invites him to a play by Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch), a successful, model “nonsubversive” writer with a sizable following in the West, Wiesler is convinced something is off. His colleague, an ambitious career climber, encourages Wiesler to bug Dreyman’s apartment, knowing full well that Dreyman’s lead actress and lover, Christa-Maria (Martina Gedeck) is the favorite pet of a powerful government minister.

And so Wiesler sets up a listening post and begins to eavesdrop on every aspect of Dreyman’s life, recording in intimate detail everything he hears. In this world, every word is scrutinized and even the tiniest slip can unravel a man. Wiesler listens as Dreyman’s pen scratches out plot ideas and he listens as the typewriter bangs them into dialogue. He listens as Dreyman and Christa-Maria fight and he listens as they make love.

Wiesler is able to spy on the lives of others because he does not have one himself. His apartment resembles a cell, his best friend would crush him under heel at the slightest whiff of a promotion, and the only physical contact he has with women he must pay for. But on this assignment, something happens that we are pretty sure has never happened before. Wiesler begins living life for the first time, even if it is vicariously through those he has been tasked to watch. He cannot stop listening. His bugs become the thinnest of lifelines to that which is vibrant, soft, warm and alive.

The Lives of Others is a mesmerizing film with a villain who is anything but. It would have been easy to make Wiesler a nefarious stereotype, but instead Mühe plays him with substance and fast moving, deeply buried torrents of emotion. We learn, by degrees, that Wiesler is not as consistent or predictable as he would have us believe.

It is extraordinary what 33-year-old writer-director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck has done with his feature debut. The Lives of Others throbs with coiled tension, much of it knotting in our stomachs during scenes as unremarkable as a character watching through a peephole or listening through headphones. The film’s pacing is so meticulous, the control of story so faultless, the script so literate, that The Lives of Others feels less like a film and more like a horrifying reality taking place in real time while we watch, unobserved but hardly impassive.

The Lives of Others is a story of paranoia and privation, of cowardice and heroism, of persuasion and resolve, of scrutiny and freedom, and of the secrets we keep even from ourselves. Some critics have indicated that they find the film’s denouncement to be far-fetched and unbelievable. Rubbish. It may skew upward, but it is hardly implausible, nor does it jump the tracks of film’s composite narrative. It inserts just the perfect dash of whimsy into a world of steely gray — not unlike that which occurs in Wiesler’s tightly regimented life.

Not since Francis Ford Coppola’s masterful The Conversation has there been a thriller quite like this.


Anonymous Calvin Wulf said...

We saw "The Lives of Others" several months ago. It is riveting. I highly recommend this movie.

Calvin Wulf

10:17 AM  
Blogger Phillip said...

In my opinion, this was the best film of 2006. I have seen it three times and have found all three viewings just as rewarding as the first.

A wonderful, rewarding film with depth and conscience ... and a most excellent ending to boot!

12:59 PM  
Anonymous Luana said...

I loved it. It's really a wonderful movie!!

5:24 AM  
Blogger Brandon said...

July 26, 2007: German actor Ulrich Mühe has died. He was 54. Mühe, the star of Oscar-winning film The Lives Of Others, died at his home in Saxony-Anhalt Germany, on Sunday. He had been receiving treatment for stomach cancer. Despite his illness, Mühe flew to Hollywood with director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck in April to see The Lives Of Others win the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. He also won the Best Actor prize at the European Film Awards in 2006. He is survived by his wife and their two children, plus another child from his earlier marriage to actress Jenny Grollmann.

4:51 AM  
Anonymous nate said...

That's really sad.

I too loved this movie. One of the best of 2006. (The best would be Children of Men).

Now I'll have to check out "The Conversation."

2:58 PM  
Blogger Brandon said...

Yes! Coppola did it between Godfathers I and II. Magnificent.

4:21 PM  

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