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The Lives of Others (2006)

November 8th, 2007 · 6 Comments

Lives of Others 2006 poster 2.jpg   Lives of Others 2006 poster.jpg

Synopsis
In 1984, an expert in interrogation and surveillance with the feared East German Stasi – Weisler (Ulrich Mühe) – is invited to see a play with an old classmate named Grubitz (Ulrich Tukur), an ambitious bureaucrat working his way up in the Communist state’s culture department. Weisler is more interested in the body language of the audience, and advises his friend that he would put the playwright, Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) under surveillance.

Romantically involved with his actress – Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck) – Dreyman is described as a loyal comrade with powerful friends. Nevertheless, when a Central Committee minister named Hempf (Thomas Thieme) asks Grubitz for his opinion on the writer, he responds, “Maybe he’s not as clean as he seems.” The minister issues his approval for full surveillance, which Weisler is put in charge of.

Weisler discovers the operation has nothing to do with protecting the socialist state, but is Hempf’s attempt to ruin the playwright so that the minister can be free to pursue Christa. Weisler becomes intimately involved in the couple’s lives. When Dreyman writes an article condemning the state and smuggles it to West Berlin, Weisler does not report it. Grubitz becomes suspicious. He pressures the surveillance expert to help destroy the couple.

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Production history 
In 1997, a freshman at Munich Film School named Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck was lying on the floor trying to come up with a film proposal for class. Listening to Beethoven’s Appassionata, he recalled something that Russian revolutionary Maxim Gorky had told Lenin while he was listening to the same music: “If I keep listening to this, I won’t finish the revolution.”

von Donnersmarck was struck by the idea of a man sitting in a room with earphones on his head, expecting to hear his foes denouncing his beloved ideology, but instead, hears music that not only makes him rethink his beliefs, but turn against them. He wondered how Stasi officers had felt, knowing everything about the lives of others. The idea went into a filing cabinet while the director spent the next five years making short films.

After spending a year and a half researching the defunct East German state, and another year and a half writing five drafts, von Donnersmarck submitted his screenplay to German distributors. Comedies are king at the box office, and even with a first-rate cast assembled, every financier rejected the script as being too dark. The film was shot without a distributor on a budget of €1.7 million – $2 million U.S. dollars – over 38 days in late 2004.

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Upon completion, The Lives of Others was again rejected by distributors, until Buena Vista Germany bought it and turned it into a box office hit. That got the attention of Sony Pictures Classics, who wanted to distribute the film in the U.S. After winning awards at film festivals and seven Lola Awards back home, Germany chose it to be their nation’s entry in the Academy Awards. It went on to win the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film of 2006.

Opinion 
I can’t remember the last film that embraced Watergate-era thrillers such as Klute, The Conversation and All The President’s Men with the visual panache and emotional resonance of The Lives of Others. This is not only a sensational debut, but a beautifully made film, written and directed with sophistication and intelligence, wonderfully cast, and above all, entertaining.

It’s a sensual film that resists turning racy, a suspenseful film that doesn’t try to appeal to a mass audience. The story reminded me of The Crying Game, challenging a decent man by placing him amid characters who are anything but decent. Ulrich Mühe communicates a sense of loneliness that will be with me for a while. Visually, the film rivals anything made in the U.S., with strong camerawork and a terrific musical score. This is easily one of the best films I’ve seen anywhere in the last year.

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Matt McKillop at Filmcritic.com writes, “The Lives of Others is a rare film. It’s a solemn work of art, a thrilling piece of entertainment, and a heart-wrenching portrait of both compassion and oppression.”

“A quietly devastating look at a part of history that’s little known to U.S. audiences, The Lives Of Others is a fascinating, compelling drama that’s well worth seeing,” says Robert Knaus at DVD In My Pants.

Jacob Hall at Independent Critics writes, “This is a very slow film, but those with patience will find themselves massively rewarded. As for those who don’t watch movies with subtitles because you don’t want to read while you watch … just go, go away now.” He gives the film an A.

© Joe Valdez

Tags: Bathtub scene · Interrogation · Midlife crisis · No opening credits · Prostitute

6 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Alice Bachini-Smith // Nov 9, 2007 at 8:48 am

    Brilliant, I’ve been wondering about this one but now it’s definitely going on the netflix list. Thank you!

  • 2 Megan // Nov 9, 2007 at 3:01 pm

    I am facinated by the difference between the two posters. Very interesting, don’t you think?

    Thanks Joe, another film goes on the list!

  • 3 Elizabeth // Nov 9, 2007 at 4:48 pm

    Thanks for another great review Joe! I saw this film before I hit the road in August and I thought it was fantastic. I’d like to see it again, after reading your review and the wonderful insight and background you provided. I know I can always count on you for that!

  • 4 Jeff McM // Nov 13, 2007 at 2:21 am

    While I enjoy this movie, I also think it’s fairly flawed. The major flaw is the simple fact that Weisler’s transformation from dedicated spy to reformed idealist is painfully fast, leaving him with virtually no internal drama for much of the narrative. Add to that the protracted epilogue and it’s a movie that I think is good but not great.

  • 5 Joe Valdez // Nov 14, 2007 at 1:38 pm

    Alice: You’re welcome. If I had to open a line of movie credit with you, I can’t think of a safer bet than The Lives of Others. Let me know what you think!

    Megan: I’ve noticed that American posters tend to be almost a graphic illustration of the entire movie, whereas European posters are not that sophisticated. They’re more like impressions, or book covers. Another interpretation would be that Americans are easily distracted and need a more explosive poster.

    Elizabeth: I’m impressed that you saw such a great movie way before I did. I review your Netflix queue to get rental ideas, you know, not just tease you renting Labyrinth.

    Jeff: I understand your criticism; maybe as a first time director, von Donnersmarck didn’t effectively communicate how listening to Beethoven transformed Weisler so suddenly. Stylistically the film blew me away, and in spite of the tiered endings, it came through with a lot of emotional resonance for me.

  • 6 Alice Bachini-Smith // Dec 9, 2007 at 1:32 pm

    Finally got round to watching this! Wow- amazingly brilliant film. Because of the subject matter I was still kind of expecting to be either depressed or bored by the ugliness that was the old East Germany, but nothing about this film was uninteresting or dismal. It was great watching it with the benefit of hindsight. Reminded me most of “The Unbearable LIghtness of Being”, which was big in the 80s but utterly depressing for obvious reasons at the time.

    Very absorbing and clever and thought-provoking throughout. (I did slightly object to one part of the ending but can’t say why without spoilering.) And inspiring too somehow. So glad I saw this one.

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