Foreign Objects travels the world of international cinema each week to highlight films worth visiting. So renew your passport, get your shots, and brush up on the local age of legal consent, this week we’re heading to…
Germany! I can’t speak for anyone else, but for me, Germany has never been a mecca of great film making. You’ve got Run Lola Run and… that’s all I can come up with. Maybe some feel-good Nazi propaganda films. Feel free to enlighten me if you can name some others. I admit for me personally one of the stumbling blocks to my enjoyment of German cinema is the language. It’s grating to the ears and always sounds like the speaker is chastising the person they’re talking to, which includes me as a member of the audience. Brings me back to first grade at Holy Ghost Elementary and Sister Hermina. Highly unappealing and only slightly erotic.
So it was with great trepidation that I sat down to watch the two-hour plus, Oscar winning The Lives of Others (Best Foreign Film, 2006.) My fears were unfounded however, as the film is captivating, suspenseful, and more than a little heartbreaking. The Lives of Others opens somewhat fittingly in 1984. Pre-glasnost East Berlin’s largest employer is the Stasi, or secret police, whose stated goal is “to know everything.” Their official ranks are dwarfed by the more than 200,000 informers who phone or write in with tips and accusations against neighbors, friends, and family alike. Captain Wiesler (Ulrich Muhe), a respected interrogator and servant of the state, is given the task of investigating Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch), a popular playwright. Dreyman is an artist who has shown nothing but loyalty to the state, which in this world is enough to make him suspicious. The more immediate cause for the investigation however is a high-ranking official’s lustful attraction to Dreyman’s girlfriend and leading lady, Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck.) I know… seemed like a rehash of Swing Kids until you reached the ‘lustful’ bit, huh? Culture Minister Hempf (Thomas Thieme) is the lubricious official whose carnal desire sets the plot in motion, but he also serves to remind his subservients (and the audience) of an important lesson when dealing with the downtrodden. “Hope dies last.”
Wiesler is dedicated, loyal, and thorough… after his team finishes bugging Dreyman’s apartment Wiesler spies a nosy neighbor and approaches her door. “One word of this to anyone and Masha loses her spot at the university,” he tells her, simultaneously silencing the woman and showing his knowledge extends far beyond his immediate subject. But his observation of the couple soon comes to challenge his beliefs in not only the state but also in himself. He sees the life and love they share on a daily basis, then goes home every night to a stark apartment livened only briefly and occasionally by a visit from a disengaged prostitute. Sitting in the attic surveillance room, he listens intently to music from the playwright’s apartment below, as if hearing music for the very first time with more than just his ears. Soon Wiesler is stealing Western literature books from the apartment and lying in his reports to headquarters. Eventually loyalty comes into question for all involved and the tightly constructed world comes crashing down, followed a few years later by the literal tumbling of the Berlin wall.
The Lives of Others is the directorial debut of Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, who may want to consider a name change before his inevitable entry into Hollywood. Although a debut, the film is masterfully handled and beautifully crafted, and the performances of the leads are equally impressive. Muhe in particular stands out as we watch his transformation from blank-faced automaton to self-aware human being. It’s a marvelous metamorphosis to witness. Koch’s Dreyman also undergoes a change as he presents a casually engaged artist perfectly accepting of the world he inhabits until, little by little, that world begins to lose its cohesion and meaning. “They can destroy you despite your talent and your faith,” the conflicted Christa-Maria tells him.
At well over two hours, The Lives of Others should feel substantially longer than it does. The fact that it carries you along so fluidly is a testament to the combined excellence of the writing, directing, and acting. This is a world of the frighteningly recent past, but it serves also as a warning for the future. Individuals are more than simply important, they are necessary. A common sense moral to be sure, but you know how forgetful those Germans can be… Muhe’s Wiesler deservedly has the film’s final line, a touching and powerful coda for a man who lived and breathed inside other’s private lives. Four simple words, “No, it’s for me.” A few words, a freeze frame, and hope lives another day.