A few days before the deaths of Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni at the end of July, the European filmmaking community suffered another notable loss: German actor Ulrich Muhe died of stomach cancer at age 54.
Unlike the long-famous, elderly directors, the middle-aged Mr. Muhe had achieved international recognition in just the past year — for his mesmerizing portrayal of the secretive but redemptive protagonist in “The Lives of Others.”
An ingenious blend of suspense melodrama and character study, “Lives” cast Mr. Muhe as a curiously introverted, quietly suffering figure, a secret police agent named Capt. Gerd Wiesler. An experienced and trusted official in the Ministry of State Security, familiarly known as Stasi, for the East German government, Wiesler is assigned to supervise a surveillance operation mounted in 1984, a few years before the regime’s collapse. This assignment provokes a belated resistance.
Wiesler decides to begin shielding his targets, a popular playwright named Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) and an actress, Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck), the writer’s girlfriend. Initially motivated by revulsion at the Stasi minister who has ordered the operation in hopes of advancing his own lecherous interest in Miss Sieland, Wiesler takes measures that prove cleverly deceptive and others that backfire, leaving him in an exposed position.
An epilogue set in the next decade depicts a sequence of events that permits Dreyman to identify and salute his unknown Stasi protector. The eloquent denouement stops short of a meeting, which wouldn’t seem at all far-fetched, Dreyman being a writer and Wiesler having improvised a considerable work of fiction while submitting reports to his superiors about him.
An exceptionally absorbing and accomplished movie, “The Lives of Others” culminated a season of critical prestige and commercial success last winter by winning the Academy Award as best foreign-language film of 2006.
Another prominent German movie featuring Mr. Muhe has yet to be imported: a farce about the Nazis titled “Mein Fuhrer: The Truly Truest Truth About Adolf Hitler,” the latest brainstorm from Dani Levy, director of “Go for Zucker!”
American art-house patrons, whose acquaintance with Mr. Muhe probably began with “The Lives of Others,” may have to resign themselves to a handful of impressions of his work, much of it devoted to the German stage and television. A certain amount of catching up is possible on the DVD edition of “The Lives of Others” because the commentary track recorded by writer-director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck preserves numerous fond impressions of the actor; this supplement helps illuminate a career likely to remain obscure in this country.
Recorded in April, a few months before Mr. Muhe’s death, the von Donnersmarck commentary also informs admirers of the film about other talented cast members, the historical background of the subject matter, the filmmaker’s creative collaborators behind the camera and the filmmaker himself. Listening closely even should make it feasible to pronounce the German names more or less correctly.
I haven’t heard more agreeable or useful director’s insights since Paul Greengrass’ contribution to the “United 93” DVD. Because it was difficult to square the elevated nature of those confidences with Mr. Greengrass’ subsequent direction of “The Bourne Ultimatum,” a worthless expenditure of energy if there ever was one, perhaps a disillusioning follow-up is in the cards with Mr. von Donnersmarck. For the time being, however, it’s impossible not to regard the youthful director (he is 34) as an enormously appealing newcomer whose promise is reinforced by his way of talking about his work and co-workers.
The anecdotes seldom stray from the immediate content of the scene we’re watching, although I did regret one oversight — the failure to call attention to the brilliant oddness of a moment when Mr. Muhe suddenly swings into a backward walk on the pavement after leaving his listening post in the attic of Dreyman’s apartment. Despite his self-evident cultivation and sparkling command of English, the filmmaker has one amusing lapse, when he botches a famous Hollywood anecdote about the perils of “message movies.” He renders it as follows: “If you want to send a message, go to the post office.” Evidently, not even educated and sophisticated young Europeans are taught the bygone significance of Western Union.
It isn’t only the Ulrich Muhe performance that emerges impressively confirmed and even enhanced in the DVD edition of “The Lives of Others.” The actors who play Wiesler’s superiors, Ulrich Tukur as cagey Lt. Col. Anton Grubitz and Thomas Thieme as gross Minister Bruno Hempf, seem even better in second and third viewings. Mr. von Donnersmarck rebukes himself at one point for shaving a dozen frames of Mr. Thieme’s bare behind from the shot that ends a sinister backseat grope of the reluctant heroine. He’s right. The mix of shock and disgust would be sharper if we had to confront that particular unsightly bottom a second longer.
TITLE: “The Lives of Others”
RATING: R (Occasional profanity and sexual candor; fleeting nudity)
CREDITS: Written and directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. Cinematography by Hagen Bogdanski. In German with English subtitles
RUNNING TIME: 137 minutes
DVD EDITION: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
WEB SITE: www.sonyclassics.com