An outstanding psychological and political thriller by first-time writer/ director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck – so outstanding it beat out Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth for last month’s Best Foreign Film Oscar – The Lives Of Others unfolds in Communist East Germany during the ’80s. At that time the State Security system, the much-feared Stasi, employed 100,000 officers and 200,000 informants in order to “know everything” about the country’s citizens. The Lives Of Others examines the chilling realities of existence under a totalitarian system.
We first meet Stasi Captain Wiesler (Ulriche Mühe) as he coldly and brutally interrogates a suspect. Apparently without family or friends, he seems drained of human emotions – a man who lives for his work. It’s with some eagerness, then, that he accepts an assignment to spy on playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) and his actress girlfriend Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck). If he proves that Dreyman is a subversive, he will earn favour with his boss Grubitz (Ulrich Tukur). But there’s a problem: the lonely spy is beginning to have doubts about the ethics of his work...
Shot in metallic greys, sickly greens and oppressive beiges, The Lives Of Others reeks with an atmosphere of fear and doubt, its protagonists haunted by (literally) life-threatening dilemmas. Should Dreyman risk the wrath of the authorities by writing an anonymous article about the suicide rate in the GDR? Will Wiesler risk his life’s work by obeying his conscience and fudging his orders?
Mühe gives an impressive, pared-down performance, winning our sympathy as he slowly reveals the humanity beneath Wiesler’s stern façade. Yet his character arc is subtle, unforced – just as the film itself ratchets up tension without ever recoursing to melodrama or pyrotechnics.
A stingingly relevant, resonant drama in which individuals dare to confront a regime’s abuse of power, it also celebrates art’s power to resist authority. Listening in as Dreyman plays Beethoven’s ‘Appassionata’, tears well up in Wiesler’s eyes. Dreyman then points out that it was Lenin who said of that very piece of music that, “If I carried on listening to this, I fear I wouldn’t finish the revolution.”
Newcomer von Donnersmarck's Stasi-era thriller is a masterful achievement, both suspenseful and poignant. Superb.