Movie Review: La Vie des autres
FILM REVIEW: THE LIVES OF OTHERS
By Michael Wilmington
Chicago Tribune Movie Critic
"The Lives of Others" takes place in a world of systematic terror and freezing paranoia, an informer's society of secret police and betrayers in Communist East Germany. The time is the Orwellian 1984, five years before the fall of the Berlin Wall. The major characters, all fictional, are a celebrated East German playwright, Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch); his actress-mistress, Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck); some of Dreyman's dissident friends; and the police who are watching them all.
The movie's young writer-director, 33-year-old Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, grew up in West Berlin (after spending some childhood years in East Berlin), but his portrayal of life in the East has a feeling of punctilious accuracy and dramatic truth. He gives us a world almost drained of color and richness, a realm of cold offices, sparely furnished apartments, empty streets and the bare little room where a member of the Stasi (State Security), Capt. Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Muehe), sits huddled over his bugs and tape recorder, peeping on the lives of the "others" - Dreyman, his lover and his sometimes reckless friends.
Von Donnersmarck makes clear that Dreyman is being persecuted not because he's a dissident (though he is sympathetic to the regime's critics), but because one of the government higher-ups, Minister Bruno Hempf, is crazy about Christa-Maria and wants to sleep with her. Wiesler's superior, the brutal and ambitious Lt. Col. Anton Grubitz (Ulrich Tukur), simply wants to get ahead by catching a big fish.
Wiesler is honestly suspicious of Dreyman. Unlike the other snoops, his motives are pure; he believes Dreyman a possible traitor. But the more he learns of them, the more he responds personally to the troubled pair. Their art and their lives touch him. He becomes increasingly protective - even as Dreyman, goaded out of his pragmatic silence by a persecuted friend's suicide, plots to send an anonymous critical article to West Germany's Der Spiegel. This rash act and Hempf's pressure on Christa-Maria precipitates a crisis - and a choice.
Von Donnersmarck's notion is that good or great art has a humanizing quality that can triumph over the evils of an authoritarian society. Muehe, subtly and quietly, takes us through some of those changes - even as von Donnersmarck gives us a full picture of what life was like in the old East Germany. (He says his film is in part a reaction to amiable recent German comedies like "Goodbye, Lenin!" with their "ostalgie," or nostalgia for the old East Germany.)
"The Lives of Others" works beautifully, both as a social and psychological drama and as a taut, tightly wired thriller. It was the big winner in last year's German film awards, winning "Lolas" for best picture, director, writer, actor (Muehe) and supporting actor (Tukur). And, considering that it marks von Donnersmarck's feature directorial debut - he previously made shorts and worked as Richard Attenborough's intern - it's a remarkably assured piece. The film spies on its characters as efficiently as the characters spy on each other.
The cast could hardly be better. Gedeck, Lola-winning star of the excellent 2002 "Mostly Martha," makes Christa-Maria sexy, ravaged and poignant. Tukur and Thieme craft memorable portraits of self-satisfied evil. Koch aptly suggests the duplicity and naivete of an artist who may believe that he's blessed, that he can survive unmarked in a state whose policies are anathema to him.
At the center of the film, giving its key performance, is Muehe, whose face rarely betrays his thoughts, except to us, as he falls in love with the people on whom he spies. Muehe is a versatile actor; he played Dr. Mengele in Costa-Gavras' political thriller, "Amen." (The also-versatile Tukur played the whistle-blowing SS officer in "Amen" and Andreas Baader of the terrorist Baader-Meinhof gang in "Stammheim.") But Muehe's seemingly minimalist portrait here is touched with genius. We can see the functionary mask he presents to the world, as well as his resentments at being subordinate to the shallow opportunist Grubitz. We almost feel him softening as he sits riveted to his recorder.
In the end, von Donnersmarck, whose film is one of this year's five foreign-language Oscar nominees, succeeds in evoking both a vanished world and the people trapped in it. His is a world of mounting fear, institutionalized terror and people who reveal themselves, sometimes surprisingly, as human beings.
"The Lives of Others"
Directed and written by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck; photographed by Hagen Bogdanski; edited by Patricia Rommel; sets designed by Silke Buhr; music by Gabriel Yared and Stephane Moucha; produced by Quirin Berg and Max Wedemann. In German with English subtitles. A Sony Pictures Classics release; opens Friday at Landmark's Century Centre Cinema in Chicago and Landmark's Renaissance Place in Highland Park. Running time: 2:17. MPAA rating: R (some sexuality/nudity).
Christa-Maria Sieland - Martina Gedeck
Capt. Gerd Wiesler - Ulrich Muehe
Georg Dreyman - Sebastian Koch
Lt. Col. Anton Grubitz - Ulrich Tukur
Minister Bruno Hempf - Thomas Thieme
Paul Hauser - Hans-Uwe Bauer