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Monday, May 28, 2007

THE LIVES OF OTHERS (2006) - Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck

Post World War 2 Germany was divided up by the victorious Allied powers. One half, West Germany, became a democratic capitalist country, while the other, East Germany fell under communist rule and became a police state, where the government ruled every aspect of society, down to the lives of each of the country's individuals. Das Leben Der Anderen, or The Lives of Others is set in 1984 in the German Democratic Republic, or East Germany to you and me. Captain Gerd Wiesler is an officer for the State Police, the Stasi, and is assigned to conduct surveillance on Georg Dreyman, a playwright who lives with his actress girlfriend, Christa-Maria Sieland. Dreyman is one of the few artists the Stasi trusts to remain loyal to the government. But as Wiesler conducts his surveillance, he becomes emotionally involved in the lives of his subjects, and begins to question his actions and the actions of his government.

The Lives of Others took home the Oscar for Best Foreign Language film in the 2007 Academy awards, and certainly is an accomplished work. Written and directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, the film is a portrait of a man, a servant of the state, who begins to regain his humanity when he becomes emotionally invested in the lives of people he is supposed to perceive as enemies of the state. He is an empty man, with little warmth in his life. The only intimacy he finds is through prostitutes. But as he observes (or rather listens to) the intimate details of these people, his cold indifference is broken down and he begins to build his emotions again.

Ulrich Muhe is the heart of the film and he plays the role perfectly. He's a stoney-faced, humorless man, questioning the loyalties of everyone, and carries out his job with ruthless efficiency. However, as his emotions begin to creep back in, we see Muhe's facade break down ever so slowly. It's a brilliant performance. In fact, the entire cast is very good. Von Donnersmarck's script is tense and compelling, with moments of humor and tenderness punctuated with tension filled elements of a solid thriller. However, the climax of the film is somewhat cliched and overly sentimental, and this slightly detracts from the overall experience. His direction is very good, creating a claustrophobic atmosphere both in Wiesler's surveillance, and the overall life in the GDR. But at 150 minutes, the film does tend to drag at times.

Overall, The Lives of Others is a very solid drama about a subject not often tackled in cinema. No doubt it'll get a US remake somewhere down the line. Sure, it won the Best Foreign Language Oscar, however, I feel that Pan's Labyrinth, which it was up against was a better film and deserved the award. But that's typical Academy. Fantasy never gets Oscars. Excellent performances, good direction and a good script, but a slightly disappointing ending and an unnecessarily long running time slightly detract.


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