Monday, February 20, 2012
100 Movies - No. 52: The Lives of Others
Drama, Thriller, 137 minutes, German Language
Directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
Starring Ulrich Muhe, Sebastian Koch and Martina Gedeck
Most of us have never grown up in a regime that denies us freedom of speech, freedom of thought, or freedom of belief. Those terms were part of my study material leading up to my Canadian citizenship test which I took in January. Now, after swearing an oath and becoming Canadian, I'm reminded how precious those freedoms are. If you were born in East Germany before the wall fell, or in other parts of Eastern Europe, you will understand how different life was just over 20 years ago.
The Lives of Others is set in East Germany in 1984 and it focuses on some of the freedoms I mentioned above. We see a man interrogating a prisoner sometime in his past, and then watch him teach the importance of the techniques to a class of students. He's an expert in human behavior and body language and can tell when someone is lying. He also notes subversive behavior throughout society, right down to the students in his class. He's Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler and he's a member of the Stasi; a government secret police force.
The story focuses on author Georg Dreyman (Koch) and his actress girlfriend Christa-Maria Sieland (Gedeck). Dreyman writes plays and one event in particular inspires him to write a book outlining the oppressive regime in East Germany. Put yourself in his situation for a moment. Who would you trust with your ideas? How would you try to get the book published in Western Europe?
Wiesler suspects something and thinks that Dreyman should be under surveillance, so he offers to supervise the operation himself. His team bugs Dreyman's apartment and Wiesler listens from his hideaway in the roof of the building, writing daily activity reports on Dreyman and his associates.
As the story progresses, Wiesler starts to think about his role and the purpose of his life. He's following orders, but is he doing the right thing? One of the themes early in the movie is that people remain true to their nature, but what is Wiesler's true nature? And so begins a powerful story of an author's fight to make his opinions known, and the intervention of Wiesler.
The three main actors all give terrific performances, but it's Muhe as Wiesler who steals the show. Pay close attention to your own feelings as you watch this film and note what happens to your opinion of Wiesler. The Lives of Others is a realistic and moving account that will evoke strong emotions if you allow yourself to be drawn in. If you are worried about subtitled movies, this is one that deserves your attention, so please don't let that stop you. I thoroughly enjoyed Pan's Labyrinth, but The Lives of Others rightly won the Oscar that year. It's one of the best foreign language films ever made.
If you like The Lives of Others:
I'm not going to suggest movies involving spying or secret government departments as there are plenty of those. Instead, I would consider watching Revanche. It's an intimate little film on a much smaller scale than The Lives of Others, but it closely examines the motivations of its characters. Some are obvious, but what isn't obvious is its conclusion. It shows how people make up their own minds about what matters most in life. The characters come to an unusual mutual understanding as a result. Like The Lives of Others, it's a German language film.
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