Like the omnipresent tentacles of East Germany’s onetime secret police, “The Lives of Others” grips like a boa constrictor. Superbly cast drama, centered on a loyal Stasi officer and a writer he spies on just prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall, is a socko feature debut by scripter-director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck that looks to be a solid upscale attraction wherever the special chemistry of good writing and performances is appreciated. Inexplicably absent from the lineups of both the Berlin and Cannes festivals this year, pic deserves major fest slots prior to specialized theatrical and tube play.
Since its mid-March local release, the movie has hunted down more than $11 million in 11 weeks and been showered with kudos — four at the Bavarian Film Awards and seven at the national German Film Awards (Lolas). Latter included best film, director, actor (Ulrich Muehe) and screenplay.
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Though the pic lacks the marketable Hitler hook of “Downfall,” and is not based on a real-life event, it looks set to benefit from growing offshore awareness of well-crafted German dramas inspired by recent history. In tone, and the way the drama is allowed to grow from the coolly objective helming, “Lives of Others” is closer to last year’s “Sophie Scholl: The Final Days,” and has an equally powerful finish.
The time is 1984, the place East Berlin and, per an opening title, “glasnost is nowhere in sight.” The population of East Germany is controlled by the Stasi’s 100,000 employees and 200,000 informers, whose goal is to know everything about the lives of others.
Among the most devoted of the Stasi’s officers is Capt. Gerd Wiesler (Muehe, all hollow-eyed expressionless stare), who can smell a dissident at a thousand paces and has no life beyond his work. At a performance of the latest play by Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) — “our only non-subversive writer who’s read in the West” — he decides, almost as a personal challenge, to investigate the playwright, whom Wiesler can’t believe is as clean as he seems.
Supported by a longtime colleague, Lt.-Col. Grubitz (Ulrich Tukur, radiating ruthless bonhomie), head of the Cultural Dept., and former Stasi officer-turned-minister Hempf (Thomas Thieme, channeling the late Gerd Froebe), Wiesler has Dreyman’s apartment wired.
But Wiesler can’t pin anything on the scribe, who genuinely believes in East Germany’s socialist ideals. Rather, the pic’s dramatic motor is Wiesler becoming fascinated by Dreyman’s life and his live-in relationship with actress Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck).
When Hempf, who’s taken a liking to Christa-Maria, orders Wiesler to pin something on Dreyman to get him out of the way, the loyal Stasi acolyte finds himself in a quandary for the first time in his career. Meantime, Dreyman also has his beliefs shaken by the suicide of an old friend, stage director Albert Jerska (Volkmar Kleinert).
Complex script balances the many dramatic and emotional strands between the players with poise and clarity. Though the film is talky, small-scale and has almost no physical action, it grips from the opening frame simply through the power of the performances and the way in which it doesn’t stray down the usual political-thriller paths with simple stereotypes. When Wiesler turns from an observer of people’s lives to a manipulator and participant, and is caught like a rat in his own trap, he becomes as fleet-footed as any dissident.
Final two reels take the story beyond the fall of the Wall into the early ’90s. Though that’s initially jolting — just when the pic appears to have finished — the dramatic gamble does pay off, tying up some loose plot-ends in a simple but emotionally powerful conclusion that makes the story resonate into present-day Germans’ lives.
Top-billed Gedeck is fine as the actress torn between her career and personal emotions, but the movie is Muehe’s, an East German-born legit thesp known for his roles in Michael Haneke films and as Dr. Mengele in Costa-Gavras’ “Amen.” Communicating much through the smallest actions, Muehe is especially good opposite Tukur as his wily superior. Script’s strain of black comedy — best seen in a commissary scene where a Stasi staffer unwisely cracks a joke about East German leader Erich Honecker — is beautifully played by the two vets.
Widescreen tech package is clean and tight, with art director Silke Buhr and d.p. Hagen Bogdanski creating a slightly stylized look by playing up grays and dour greens, even when using actual locations like the Stasi’s onetime HQ in Normannenstrasse. Period detail looks just right; Gabriel Yared’s symphonic score adds atmosphere and tension.