by RISHI AGRAWAL
Most people first became aware of The Lives of Others when it upset Pan’s Labyrinth to win the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. But the buzz on this film has been building for a long time. It won seven German film awards (called the Lolas) and won three awards, including Best Film at the European Film Awards in 2006. Although it has been at some film festivals in the United States, it officially opened earlier this month. Finally, Americans will have an answer to the burning question: is The Lives of Others really better than Pan’s Labyrinth? At the risk of not having people read the rest of this review, I will answer that question up front. No, it’s not better than Pan’s Labyrinth, in my opinion, but it’s awfully close.
The film takes place in East Germany in 1984 and follows a Stasi (East German secret police) agent named Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe), who is set to spy upon a playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch). Dreyman is suspicious to Wiesler because is the only non-subversive East German writer who is also read in the West. But the real reason that Dreyman is being monitored is so that a party official (Thomas Thieme) can eliminate a rival suitor for a talented actress (Martina Gedeck).
Presumably, Wiesler is disturbed by this fact. Wiesler is a cold, calculating individual who believes in rooting out subversive activity for its own sake. Unlike his colleagues, he does not see it as a launching point for his career, but he does it because he thinks it is right. In the opening scene, we see Wiesler teaching a class to aspiring Stasi agents, detailing an interrogation which takes forty hours until the prisoner reveals the information.
However, something happens to Wiesler as he observes Dreyman. He becomes moved by Dreyman’s life. At one point, he even cries while listening to Dreyman play a piano sonata. Wiesler sympathizes with Dreyman, and it becomes almost a vicarious experience for him. We guess that Wiesler has never experienced anything like this before, that he has had little exposure to music or literature and monitoring someone who deals with art on a daily basis provides him with an epiphany. Unfortunately, we know very little about the background of these characters and their motivations. We can only surmise from their actions. This is a relatively minor fault of the film, and too much background could interfere with the delicate tone, but I feel like we could have used a tiny bit more exposition.
Despite the fact that we have no explanation for Wiesler’s transformation, it still remains the center of the film and easily the most fascinating part. Perhaps my need to know more about Wiesler is that I want to know what drives him and how he got to this point in his life with such detachment from the people around him. Wiesler starts out in the audience for Dreyman’s life and slowly becomes the director, manipulating the characters around him without their knowledge. Perhaps Wiesler’s motives are sinister and perhaps they are paternalistic, but I think that, even when Wiesler acts as a director, he is still in the audience. In a way, he wants to make sure he gets a good show.
The bleakness of this film oozes from the screen, from the stark cinematography to the perpetual sadness that seems to surround most of the characters. Those that do not approve of the totalitarian regime must carry out their protests in subtle ways. It would have been easy to make this a film about paranoia, but the characters realize that the omnipresence of the Stasi is almost inevitable. That is not to say that the characters do not take risks, but they remain aware of the consequences.
The other problem with the film is also relatively minor. The film reaches a logical and satisfying conclusion, but yet the film continues after that point. I have never been a fan of epilogues, but probably because I rarely see them handled well. Without giving too much away, I will say that the epilogue is interesting from a historical standpoint, but from a dramatic perspective, it seems unnecessary.
3 1/2 stars