The Lives of Others
The Lives of Others presents its audience with a compelling story that is far more relevant to our times than we’d like to admit. Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck has struck artistic gold with his Oscar contending, directorial and screenwriting debut. The skill of this filmmaking is terrifying in its own way as it forces us to think, to put ourselves in morally ambiguous situations and compels us to see the both the humanity and the inhumanity in each of us.
Donnersmarck has proven himself as a master story teller as he delves into the dark world of Socialism, East Berlin, and espionage. The story follows Stasi (German Secret Police) Captain Weisler (Ulrich Muhe) as he tries to determine the loyalties of playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) who has drawn attention to himself by being the only non-subversive playwright in Eastern Germany. Dreyman is involved with stage actress Christa-Maria Seiland (played sensually by Martina Gedeck) who, unbeknownst to Dreyman, is involved with culture minister Hempf. In his own plot line, Hempf is attempting to have Dreyman removed from the picture so that Seiland will become his own.
Donnersmarck uses this main storyline to weave a complex tale that certainly isn’t lacking in moral dilemmas. Donnersmarck poses some very interesting questions that can’t be answered simply. What is art really worth and what are we willing to sacrifice for its existence? Where exactly does government overstep its bounds in the name of protection of its citizen and in the name of the state? But most importantly, we see Donnersmarck’s belief that over great odds, humanity can triumph over even the evils of Socialism.
Despite these ever present, important themes, Lives doesn’t fail to deliver the goods on screen. Donnersmarck shows his skill at building palpable tension in one particular scene at Stasi headquarters. In an attempt to bring the equality Socialism to all levels of life, Weisler and another officer sit next to low level Stasi office workers. Without noticing the commanding officers, one of these young men starts to tell a joke about the then GDR leader, Erich Honecker. Upon realizing the step out of bounds, the young man backtracks quickly as the officers confirm this was a career ending move for him. The intensity at this moment could be cut with a knife. In other, lesser films, scenes like this can seem campy, overdramatic and unbelievable. Donnersmarck uses these chilling moments to shine as the audience is sucked into the overwhelming terror of such a dictatorship.
The true brilliance of the film comes in watching the complexity of the characters and the changes they go through. The no-frills screenplay allows us to see true human drama in a way that’s obviously not contrived. On top of these accomplishments, Donnersmarck manages this without drawn out action scenes, without gratuitous violence or sex. But don’t get me wrong, the gritty love story between Dreyman and Seiland is one of the main, and most compelling story lines that keeps the audience interested.
As we follow this masterpiece, the viewer becomes a part of both the Stasi and a part of the underground resistance. We understand the decisions made by both parties and this is what makes The Lives of Others so compelling. Watch this movie. Don’t be afraid of the subtitles, and you’ll be vastly rewarded.