- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 22, 2007

“The Lives of Others” (“Das Leben der Anderen”) is a deft exploration of a police state in the year 1984. This astonishingly accomplished debut is destined to become a classic, a masterpiece approaching the insight and pathos of George Orwell’s fictional look at totalitarianism in the same year.

German writer-director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s Oscar-nominated film — quite simply 2006’s best — may be the first to examine seriously the workings of the German Democratic Republic. Films like “Good Bye Lenin!” (2003) treated the communist state with humor, and even nostalgia — oh, those wacky days when you queued for hours and could get shot for trying to cross the border.

Indeed, “The Lives of Others” may be the first great indictment of communism on film.

Ernst Lubitsch’s 1939 comedy “Ninotchka,” which deflates the dour self-denial of Stalinism while celebrating the West’s joie de vivre, is, of course, a classic. But the recent history of the genre is rather undistinguished, to say the least. There was the campy 1984 action flick “Red Dawn,” 1987’s earnest “Hanoi Hilton” and 2005’s “The Lost City,” Andy Garcia’s undisciplined ode to pre-revolutionary Havana that was panned by most critics.

The problem is that many of these films are as ideological and didactic as the system they seek to censure. “The Lives of Others,” on the other hand, is a great work of art, first and foremost. Its indictment of a system is embedded in a moving story about human beings.

Stasi agent Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Muhe) is a trusted member of East Germany’s Ministry for State Security. The film begins with him conducting an interrogation of a clearly terrified citizen who insists that he’s innocent of whatever it is that brought him here. Is he implying that he was arrested on a whim? Wiesler asks.

“If you think our humanistic system capable of such a thing, that alone would justify your arrest,” Wiesler tells him with chilling circularity. Officers take the man away, and Wiesler collects the cloth on the man’s seat in case they ever need dogs to locate him by scent.

The impassive Wiesler may be the perfect secret policeman. His life is empty — his only human connection is with a prostitute he almost begs to stay, but with whom he couples fully clothed — and he trusts no one. He attends a play one night with his friend and superior, Anton Grubitz (Ulrich Tukur). Grubitz notes of the drama’s author, Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch), “He’s our only nonsubversive writer read in the West.” Wiesler advises Grubitz to have the playwright watched.

He’s soon assigned the job. Government minister Bruno Hempf (Thomas Thieme) is taken with Dreyman’s live-in, theater star girlfriend, Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck). Unbeknownst — at first — to Wiesler, he wants dirt dug up on Dreyman to remove his rival. In the meantime, Hempf leverages Sieland by threatening her acting career. In East Berlin, no one can do anything without government approval.

Wiesler discovers Grubitz was right — Dreyman wasn’t a dissident. But as the playwright watches the regime take its toll on his artist friends, including a mentor no longer allowed to direct, he reconsiders. His awakening leads in turn to an awakening for his eavesdropper. As Wiesler listens to Dreyman and Sieland grapple with their art, their love and their consciences, he gradually regains his humanity.

“The Lives of Others” is powerful but understated filmmaking in which all is shown and nothing is told. The drab earth tones of East Berlin, for example, speak volumes about its people’s despair.

Mr. von Donnersmarck is helped by an extraordinary cast. Mr. Koch, a star of German television, should get international attention with this and “Black Book,” Paul Verhoeven’s latest Dutch film coming out this spring. Miss Gedeck has already appeared in a Hollywood production, Robert De Niro’s “The Good Shepherd.” Their fraught interactions are always moving.

And it is a real treat for American audiences to meet Mr. Muhe, an accomplished stage and television actor whose own wife reportedly informed on him in East Germany.

Others provide some startling but delicious black humor. Mr. Tukur, as the policeman, urging a Stasi trainee to tell his joke about a GDR leader is priceless. And while Wiesler is both a curious and uncomfortable voyeur of the cultured couple’s lovemaking, a Stasi underling says cheerfully, “That’s why I prefer monitoring artists to priests and peace activists.”

“Lives” references Lenin’s remark that listening to Beethoven’s “Appassionata” would keep him from the killing necessary for revolution. Wiesler is forced to face beauty in the form of Gabriel Yared’s haunting score. Here, the composer has written a “Sonata for a Good Man” that helps move both the film’s plot and theme.

Participants in another atrocity in Germany, the Holocaust, often offered the defense, “I was just following orders.” Mr. von Donnersmarck’s film is a compelling refutation of that moral logic while still full of hope for imperfect humanity.


TITLE: “The Lives of Others” (“Das Leben der Anderen”)

RATING: R (some sexuality/nudity)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. In German with English subtitles.

RUNNING TIME: 137 minutes

WEB SITE: www.thelivesofothers.com


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