Movie #157 The Lives of Others
(2006, Germany, d. Florian Henckel von Donnersmark)
I had the absolute pleasure of watching this film last night, arguably one of the best I’ve ever seen. It takes place in 1984, East Germany – where the Stasi, or Secret Police, consisting of 100,000 workers literally monitor what everybody is saying and doing. If it’s even a tad anti-socialist and anti-national, they’re questioned and thrown in jail. Our protagonists are an expert Stasi monitor and an author who may or may not have more democratic thoughts in his mind. Without the latter knowing, the former wires the latter’s entire apartment and listens day in and day out for any clues. Without giving anything away, what happens from there is a true cinematic achievement. But one of the best things about the film, from an audience’s perspective, is that you actually do not know what each character will do at any given moment. But this is not due to a weakness in its writing or character development; rather it is a testament to its strength. Whether or not one character will sabotage another’s life or work or well-being is almost entirely up to the moment and you can tell von Donnersmarck is deriving incredible pleasure while he drags out the tension of every scene to a tipping point. But apart from the suspense of the film, its characters are really complex and beautiful canvases upon which the film is about. Wonderfully acted by its two leads, Ulrich Mühe (who sadly died just shortly after this film won the Oscar for Foreign film) and Sebastian Koch, and beautifully photographed and lit by Hagen Bogdanski, The Lives of Others is a tragic picture that combines the regime we see in Fahrenheit 451 with tragedy of Schindler’s List. It’s a harrowing and touching film and it does so with very minimal violence or graphic material and that’s rare these days. Very, very rare.