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Movie Review: The Lives of Others

The Lives of Others
Written and directed by Floran Henckel von Donnersmarck
Sony Pictures Classics, 2006

The surprise winner for 2006 Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars, beating out the favorite Pan’s Labyrinth, Germany’s The Lives of Others is the anti-Labyrinth, filled mostly with plot over visuals.  And by that standard, this film deservedly won the Academy Award.

Parts The Conversation and Schindler’s List, The Lives of Others focuses on the German Stasi, a police organization founded in the fifties that disbanded in the eighties, where this story takes place.  Their mission, as the film plainly states, is to ”know everything.”  With East Germany being a Socialist state, they aimed to keep it that way by weeding out those who could break it apart.  Not surprisingly, artists got targeted, blacklisted for any anti-Socialist talk.

The Stasi, at the behest of Minister Bruno Hempf (Thomas Thieme), wants to spy on writer Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch).  Dreyman is a playwright, the only one who can get his plays performed in the East and never says anything controversial, so spying on him seems like a fruitless endeavor.  Nevertheless, the Stasi begins work on Dreyman, and leading the charge is Hauptmann Gerd Weisler (Ulrich Muhe), who takes orders from his former Stasi Academy classmate Obersleutnant Anton Grubitz (Ulrich Tukur).

Weisler is a by-the-book, scary-patient eavesdropper, and for half a day, every day he listens to conversations made by Dreyman and his friends, especially his girlfriend Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck), an actress who performs in his plays.  Time after time, Dreyland gets approached by anti-Socialist sentiment and is able to stave it off enough to truly come off clean.  Weisler slowly becomes a silent cheerleader for Dreyman, so much so that he begins to let certain things slide.  But with the powers above him putting on the pressure to find something (and there is a plot point I won’t mention here as to the reason why), he has to balance his duty with his conscience.

And this is a big reason why The Lives of Others is one of the best movies you’ll ever see.  It gives viewers an opportunity to debate, “Should you meddle in the lives of others even if your intentions are good?”  With an unexpected finale and epilogue, the film pulls off an incredible balance of story, characters, and entertainment.  It doesn’t have some nonsense interpretive ending (like the overpraised Cache), it has a place it wants to go and it goes there, and it’s more than satisfying.

Sadly, Ulrich Muhe died shortly after this won Best Picture.  It certainly is an unforgettable performance.

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