17 June, 2009

Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others) (2006)

Secrets and lies

In what was, quite remarkably, German writer-director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's first feature, we are taken inside the dark heart of East Germany in the mid-1980s. Communism still rules with an iron grip, the fall of the Berlin Wall is still five years away, and Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe) is a high-flying member of the Stasi, the secret police agency of the former German Democratic Republic.

Seemingly dedicated to his job to the point of cruelty, Wiesler's secret surveillance activities, keeping an eye and ear on so-called enemies of the state, are nevertheless beginning to take their toll, as he finds himself becoming increasingly absorbed by the lives of his latest subjects, award-winning author Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) and popular stage actress Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck). While the pair are perceived as potentially dangerous subversives by the powers-that-be, Wiesler comes to realize the price that everyday citizens are forced to pay living under the totalitarian regime and sets out, at great risk to himself, to buck the system. But his efforts are set to bring terrible consequences...

Rarely, with the possible exception of Francis Ford Coppolla's The Conversation (1975) has the question of who watches the watchers, and the human costs of spying been addressed in a more humane, adult and poignant fashion. Mühe's gradual transformation from 'The Law Is Not Mocked' implacability to Everyman is a startling triumph of script and acting ability - a sense of impending tragedy pervades from the outset and, when it comes, rare will be the viewer without hand to mouth.

But that's not to say that doom is all that the film deals in; there is room still for a denouement as sincere as it is satisfying. Truly, this is the kind of film that makes it a pleasure to be a critic.

Awards: Among a host of other gongs, Das Leben der Anderen took Best Film, Best Actor (Ulrich Mühe) and Best Screenwriter (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck) at the 2006 European Film Awards. Click here for details.

137 mins. In German.

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