Friday, February 16, 2007

Das Leben der Anderen / (The Lives of Others) - Movie Review

Das Leben der Anderen / (The Lives of Others) 2007

One of the great payoffs for being nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar is the bump in release time. Instead of the six months to three years (!) delay in distributing a well received foreign flick, the Oscar nod helps considerably in landing the honored film into the theatres stateside. And so, we are faced with Germany’s bid for the little gold man: “The Lives of Others / Das Leben der Anderen” written and directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. Whew! We’re exhausted just typing his name! Although it does roll off the tongue quite nicely. Like a pastry one might find in a Hamburg bakery.

The Lives of Others takes a jaundiced backwards glance at a pre-Glasnost Germany, where the Iron Curtain is firmly closed behind the infamous wall. We meet one Captain Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler, a member of the Stasi (The State Security) and a rising star in the interrogation of “the others”, or citizens of East Berlin whose activities merit suspicion, surveillance or imprisonment. The opening scene, which is a corker follows one such interrogation at the Hohenschonhausen (the central detention center of the Stasi) of a young man who is suspected of helping a neighbor escape to West Berlin. We see the cool, calculated method of interrogation which includes sleep deprivation and psychological torture. This scene is interspersed with shots of Captain Wiesler instructing students at the Stasi on the proper method of interrogating a suspect. When one of the students questions the use of sleep deprivation, Captain Wiesler takes quick note of his name for future use. Never let it be said that the Germans weren’t good at multitasking!

“The Lives of Others” is a top notch political film, with dabs of Film Noir freely interspersed. Actually, it’s more of a Film Gris with its drab palette used brilliantly throughout. It features exemplary performances, a tightly scripted floorplan that manages to incorporate so much political backstory and still maintain its fascinating dramatic flow. It is neither sentimental nor melodramatic, and yet it manages to eschew emotion by some rather miraculous turnabouts that border on the ridiculous. But we are getting ahead of ourselves. Naughty, naughty. We deserve a spanking. And we bet that those dirty Huns would just love to deliver it! Filthy Krauts.
Captain Wiesler is invited to the theatrical premiere of the latest work by one of the brightest literary stars in the GDR: one Georg Dreyman whom we are told is beyond reproach as a faithful servant to the state. The leading actress in his play is Christa-Maria Sieland, who is not only revered for her passionate talent but is playing hide the kielbasa with her author! At the premiere, we encounter Minister Bruno Hempf who it turns out has his eye on both of the pair for divergent reasons. He seems to feel in his gut that Dreyman is not quite the loyal Socialist drone he appears to be, while his feelings towards the handsome Christa-Maria (we would say lovely, but remember this is East German women we are talking about here, and we’re just grateful she didn’t have a moustache.) are of a more libidinous nature. And so Captain Wiesler is assigned to begin the “operative procedure” of monitoring their lives around the clock.

What begins as a semi-routine Orwellian exercise, turns into a terrific political thriller that dares to raise important issues all while entertaining the lederhosen off of us. The rights of the individual, the question of honor, the power of art to transform, patriotic duty to your country . . . how often do you come across a film that manages to incorporate discussions concerning such matters without boring you to death? It is so rare to discover a filmmaker that is capable of juggling dramatic storytelling skills with socio-political discussions; we almost broke down and cried at the end of this beautifully crafted film.

The cast is uniformly fine with several stand-out performances. As Captain Gerd Wiesler, Ulrich Mühe delivers a killer turn as the by-the-book military man who is determined to fulfill his duty to the state. Unfortunately for the state, inside the rigid exterior of Captain Wiesler, lies the heart of a poet. One that is capable of responding to the beauty of Brecht’s poetry and the sentiment of a Beethoven sonata.

As the famed playwright Georg Dreyman, Sebastian Koch exudes leading man charisma and the accomplished grace of truly fine actor. When his mentor and hero, the blacklisted director Albert Jerska resorts to desperate measures in this totalitarian environment, Dreyman is forced to choose between his comfortable existence and honoring his great teacher.
Martina Gedeck portrays the famed actress Christa-Maria Sieland. While she may appear to be little more than ornamental at the beginning, this is the character to keep your eye on. Her transformation from respected artist to the emotionally ravaged creature she becomes is mesmerizing.

Another Ulrich (!), what did Germany run out of good male names? What’s wrong with Adolf? Oh. Never mind. Anyway, Ulrich Tukur delivers a superb supporting turn as Lieutenant Colonel Grubitz who has assigned Captain Wiesler his post. At turns charming, raffish and embittered: his ability to assess a person’s character, or so he believes, drives his insistent need to impress his superiors of his dedication to the political line.

But if the movie had only strong actors to recommend it, it would not emerge the best film of the New Year! There, we said it. And Oscars be damned, the film wasn’t released until now, so there. What distinguishes this film from other political thrillers, including the interesting but muddled “Breach” is the artistry of its director. Especially considering that this is his feature film debut! Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, has crafted an intricate script that manages to cover so much territory, all while keeping his eye firmly on the storytelling, tension and atmosphere. In many ways he recalls the glory days of such masterpieces of the genre as “Z”, “The Conformist”, “All the President’s Men” and the rediscovered classic “Army of Shadows” that erupted out of the movie houses last year.

While only time will tell if von Donnersmarck has the potential to fulfill his extraordinary promise he demonstrates here, he has our undying gratitude for his enviable skill. There are so many scenes of visceral clarity that we find it difficult to decide: the opening interrogation scene with its palpable tension, the clever way one of the political blackballed deals with his constant surveillance, the trust the director gives to his leading man that allows him the moments to reveal his changing political views in silent glory . . . all of them ravishing.

But we think our favorite moments involve the juxtaposed “confrontation” scenes between Captain Wiesler and Christa-Maria. Well, confrontation is hardly the word. In one, a despondent Christa-Maria wanders into a local café where Wiesler watches her and dares to approach. He is drawn to this woman – perhaps as a symbol, perhaps purely prurient in nature – in either case he braves the risk of being revealed in order to reach out to an obviously wounded person. When next there paths cross, the situation will be entirely different and the unsuspecting Christa-Maria’s moment of understanding is the dramatic highlight of the film.

The other most memorable moment is light years away in dramatics and much smaller in scope. Early in the film, Captain Wiesler and his commanding officer Grubitz overhear a young man telling a joke that ridicules the party leader. The taunting and calculated method that Grubitz uses to humiliate the prankster is handled beautifully and memorably. So memorable, that when we next see this young man towards the end of the film the scene is blistering for its sharpness and clarity. It is a moment that a hack Hollywood director would have hammered home, presumably by extended flashbacks to help spark the less sharp audience members memories. Von Donnersmarck needs no such prodding or manipulation. His vision is clear. Succint. Visceral. Emotive. Intelligent. And blissfully cinematic. Do yourselves a favor and drop what you’re doing and run out and see “The Lives of Others” – you’ll be thrilled we sent you! Bless you all!

Written and Directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck

Ulrich Mühe as Captain Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler
Sebastian Koch as Georg Dreyman
Martina Gedeck as Christa-Maria Sieland
Ulrich Tukur as Oberstleutnant Anton Grubitz
Thomas Thieme as Minister Bruno Hempf
Hans-Uwe Bauer as Paul Hauser
Volkmar Kleinert as Albert Jerska
Matthias Brenner as Karl Wallner
Charly Hübner as Udo
Herbert Knaup as Gregor Hessenstein
Bastian Trost as Häftling 227
Marie Gruber as Frau Meineke
Hinnerk Schönemann as Unterleutnant Axel Stigler
Ludwig Blochberger as Benedikt Lehmann

Cinematography by Hagen Bogdanski
Film Editing by Patricia Rommel
Original Music by Stéphane Moucha and Gabriel Yared
Costume Design by Gabriele Binder
Production Design by Silke Buhr
Set Decoration by Frank Noack



Post a Comment

<< Home