The Lives of Others: Devastating Tale of Life In The German Democratic Republic! Review - The Lives of OthersThe Lives of Others is the film that upset the heavily favored Pan’s Labyrinth to win the 2006 Oscar® for Best foreign Language Film. Now, Pan’s Labyrinth is one of my all-time favorite films and I’d not even heard of the film’s writer/director, Florian Henckel Von Donnersmarck. Given the majesty of Guillermo Del Toro’s film, I found myself wondering how anything could deprive it of an Academy Award® – let alone a small film about a playwright in East Germany whose lover was coveted by a high-ranking government official and placed under surveillance to find an excuse to throw him in jail.

Georg Dreyman [Sebastian Koch], the aforementioned playwright, is in a serious, long-time relationship with the actress Christa-Maria Sieland [Martine Gedeck]. Following the premiere of his latest play, the two are introduced to Minister Bruno Hempf [Thomas Thieme] whose roving hands put Christa to flight. In an attempt to take Dreyman out of the picture, he orders Oberstleutnant Anton Grubitz [Ulrich Tukur] to have the playwright placed under surveillance. Grublitz orders his friend – and one of the country’s best interrogators, Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler [Ulrich Muhe, who died of stomach cancer in July of this year] to undertake this surveillance mission – dubbed Operation Lazlo.

What seems like a pretty straightforward plot takes some unexpected turns when Wiesler is subjected some treasonous [by GDR standards] conversations as well as something he’s never encountered before, beautiful music. As the film progresses, events occur that cause Dreyman, Christa and Wiesler to reexamine their beliefs – as well as their personal existences. This self-examination results in one fatality and a damning article in the West German magazine Der Spiegel that reveals the state of suicide in the GDR.

As the film progresses, and we watch the characters interact [whether face-to-face, or through the wiretaps in Dreyman’s apartment], the film gradually – almost stealthily – picks up speed and becomes something of a political thriller. Von Donnersmarck’s direction, from his own script, evokes the harsh beauty of the GDR as well as its horrors, frequently subverting our expectations with strategically placed bits of dark humor. Review - The Lives of Others

We get a sense of the two men at the core of the film, Dreyman and Wiesler, through their behaviour as much as by anything they say. Wiesler’s solitary life, dominated by his work, is the only kind of life he’s known, so he’s completely unprepared for the music he hears will eavesdropping on Dreyman. Dreyman, on the other, has a full, challenging life – intellectually and artistically, he has a full a life as anyone in the GDR could hope for.

Von Donnersmarck’s script, and his sneakily paced direction prevent the audience from noticing that this is a fairly long film [138 minutes]. We are so drawn into this strange and horrifying world that the film passes quickly. Part of that is due to the fine performances of his cast, but also partly to the manner in which he uses color and lighting to give us an authentic feel for life in the GDR – plus an astoundingly subtle score by Gabriel Yared. By the time the film draws to its close, we have become so immersed in the proceedings that the first and only exchange between Wiesler [and not even in person] has a profound impact.

I came away from The Lives of Others understanding how the Academy could have awarded it the Oscar® over Pan’s Labyrinth – it’s clearly more in tune with the expectations of an awards organization that tends to shy away from the fantastic, and The Lives of Others was certainly the next best choice. In fact, I would have to say that its impact on me was within a hair’s breadth of being as profound as Del Toro’s masterpiece – and no other film from last year even comes close. The Lives of Others is a masterpiece.

Features include: an extremely good and detailed Audio Commentary by Von Donnersmarck; Making of The Lives of Others; and half-hour Interview with Von Donnersmarck [done at the 2006 Toronto International film Festival], and Deleted Scenes [with optional commentary by Von Donnersmarck].

Grade: The Lives of Others – A+

Grade: Features – A

Final Grade: A+

Review Posted by Sheldon Wiebe

Originally Posted 08/30/07

For more reviews of current releases, check our DVD Reviews page.


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