February 11, 2007

MOVIES: Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others) (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, 2006)

One of this year's Oscar nominees for Best Foreign Film.

The setting is East Germany in 1984, and our main character is Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe), an officer in the Stasi, the secret police. He is dragged to the theater one night by his boss, who explains to him that playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) is "our only non-subversive writer who's read in the West". Wiesler takes this as a challenge, and declares that given the chance, he could find something subversive in Dreyman's life. He's given that chance. The apartment that Dreyman shares with his actress girlfriend Christa (Martina Gedeck) is wired, and Wiesler sets up a listening post in the building's attic.

Listening to the lives of Georg and Christa changes Wiesler, for many reasons. His own life is drab and empty -- his apartment has the personality of a hotel room -- and he's fascinated by the relative activity and happiness of theirs. As a good and loyal agent of the state, he is shocked and horrified to discover that there may have been personal motivations behind his assignment to the case (the minister of culture has designs on Christa, and would love to see Georg gotten out of the way).

Most important, perhaps, he begins to wonder if their subversive acts are really so horrible after all, and to question his own role and job. Gradually, Wiesler finds that he is no longer content to simply listen, and he begins taking action to shape events, which under this government, is itself a subversive act that can only lead to his own downfall.

The performances are all first-rate. Mühe, who seems at first to be an utterly soulless robot, makes Wiesler's transformation entirely convincing. Koch is moving as the playwright who is foolish enough to believe that no one could suspect him of wrongdoing, and Thomas Thieme is perfectly sleazy and loathsome as the culture minister.

The story (von Donnersmarck is also the writer) never becomes melodramatic, and builds to a marvelously suspenseful ending that has us wondering whether any of these characters can survive the plots that have been put in motion. This is a sharp and thoughtful thriller; highly recommended.

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