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Film Review

The Lives of Others

(March 10, 2007) It's 1984 in East Germany, a small Communist country with a closed, highly repressive society under nearly total surveillance by the STASI, their state security agency. In a country of only 17 million, the STASI directly employed 100,000 and more than 200,000 informers. The STASI was greatly feared and loathed, and no part of East German society was unaffected by it. It was what George Orwell depicted in his prophetic and well titled book, 1984.

Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, a German writer and director, has brilliantly recreated this grim world in his new film, The Lives of Others. The two principal protagonists are Georg Dreyman, a successful playwright who has chosen to largely ignore the political world, and a STASI captain, Gerd Wiesler, smart, zealous, and utterly dedicated to the state. The film opens with Wiesler teaching a class on interrogation to new STASI recruits, and is chilling. Shortly after, Wiesler sees a performance of one of Dreyman' plays, and becomes curious about why such a prominent artist would not have been under intense surveillance like nearly all other writers and artists. He mentions this to his superior, who in turn is directed by his boss, the Minister of security, to investigate Dreyman and discover his secrets. But there is another, much more important motive to the Minister's wish to uncover Dreyman. Dreyman's girlfriend is a beautiful, very talented actress, Christa-Maria Sieland. Both are devoted to each other, but the Minister is jealous of Dreyman, and intent on having Sieland as his mistress.

Captain Wiesler is assigned to totally bug Dreyman's apartment, and sets up a listening studio in the attic of the building. The depiction of the STASI team breaking into the apartment, and wiring it within 20 minutes is riveting. Shortly after, we see Wiesler upstairs listening to everything including their love making sessions. Wiesler spends countless hours listening, but no real evidence emerges that Dreyman is disloyal. Gradually Wiesler becomes fascinated by the richness of Dreyman's life, in contrast to his own, and steals one of Dreyman's books, poems by Brecht. A very hurried, sad encounter with a prostitute underlines the emptiness of Wiesler's life. An sad incident and a writer friend convinces Dreyman to write an article on the soaring suicide rate in East German, the second highest in Europe, surpassed only by Hungary. Which itself has become a state secret. And he begins to cross the line into active dissent. Wiesler, beginning to change himself, continues to be obsessed with Dreyman. Meanwhile Wiesler's superior is being pressured to turn up some sort of evidence against Dreyman. In a frightening conversation, the superior brags about how short prison sentences in total isolation are effective in silencing artists and writers. "There isn't much violence, and most never paint or write again." I don't want to discuss any more of the story but it becomes increasingly intense. The coda, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, is immensely moving.

The acting here is simply phenomenal, with glances or sad smiles saying much. Most scenes are indoors, often in small dim rooms. There is a constant sense of melancholy, reflecting the desperate unhappiness and fear in the society itself. The cinematography is first rate, with many closeups, and typically washed out colors. The music is extremely sympathetic to the film, and was done by Gabriel Yared, who did the music for The English Patient. The tone is always understated, grim, and shows how fear has completely corrupted society. Yet this film is brilliant portrayal of great evil, and unimaginably, a first film by this director. The Lives of Others is very very powerful, and tells a riveting story with important implications for our society today. The film haunted me, and is one of the best that I have seen in many years. See this in a theater, not at home! You will not forget this masterpiece; it is greatness on screen. Playing at the Embarcadero now.

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