Apr 22, 2007

On The Lives of Others

Commendable for its historic scope and depth of human feeling, if not for its ideological onesidedness and thriller mechanics masquerading as naturalism, Florian Henckel Von Donnersmarck’s “The Lives of Others” is an emotionally resonant look at the tragic consequences of the Orwellian police state for pair of narrative artists during the final years’ of East German communism and how it transforms one of the men responsible. A stern, rule abiding member of the Stasi, the East German secret police, Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Muhe, fantastic) teaches new recruits the tactics of sensory deprivation and cruelty necessary to break detainees and discover their secrets. Assigned to monitor the activities of Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) a popular playwright well regarded by high-ranking party officials but nonetheless suspicious enough to draw red flags, Wiesler bugs his apartment, threatens his suspicious neighbor about warning Dreyman and camps out in an empty cellar above Dreyman’s apartment, listening to his every private moment day after day, scouring for indications that his faithfulness to the party is waning. Of course, what he discovers isn’t nearly what he expected.

Georg is a reluctantly faithful party member, despite accusations of conformity and collusion by his fiery leftist friend Paul Hauser (Hans-Uwe Bauer) and the clear blacklisting and emotional dissolution of his colleague, Albert Jerska (Volkmar Kleinert), under whose direction Georg’s theatrical work rose to prominence. Georg’s lover is an actress, Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck). She stars in his plays and has a passion for Georg and the theatre that is matched by her dispassion for politics, which is at odds with both the lefty theatre types Georg dangerously associates with and Minister of Culture Bruno Tempf (Thomas Thieme), a pudgy, corrupt, insidiously threatening man who has little capacity for or desire to appreciate the artists and artwork he’s charged with administering and a tragically unabated sexual desire for Christa.

As Gerd listens on and discovers minor indiscretions on which he could charge Georg, he’s hesitant and increasingly won over by the intoxicating world of ideas, poetry, love and music that the dashingly handsome playwright inhabits. Soon he discovers that Dreyman has written an essay on rising suicide rates among East Germans, especially persecuted artists, living behind the curtain, which has been published by a popular West German journal. As the imperative to find something on the increasingly harassed Dreyman intensifies and Tempf’s hideous sexual blackmailing of Christa threatens to pull apart her relationship with Georg, Wiesler begins to cover Dreyman’s tracks before his superiors can catch on, with tragical results for all parties.

Exhibiting a firm command of a sensual, restrained aesthetic American art house audience are comfortable with, Von Donnersmarck has made a debut film with a lot to admire in it. He seems convinced that East German communism was a preternaturally evil system dominated by the complacent, the cruel and the superficially deluded. Nowhere in this former West German’s film do we get a sense of East Germany as a place where some people actually believed in the philosophical and moral underpinnings of communism and the figures who represent that state are wholly barbaric, corrupt and unredeemable. This aspect of the film is so inconsistent with the depths of nuance and character observation evident in the film’s strongest moments that it serves as a larger disappointment then in a film with so much less at stake and in its favor. The wonderful casting is what shines brightest. The trio of performers at the center of the film are all universally marvelous, especially Muhe, in who’s conflicted shoes we sit and listen as the joys of an intellectual life expose themselves to him. An entire range of emotions plays on his reticent face as he grows hungry for the liberation Georg seems to represent while he silently realizes his ideological imperatives, his entire identity, are collapsing under the weight of injustice. In their largely two note roles, Thieme and Ulrich Tukur as hid underling and Wiesler diect superior are arresting. Sadly, they aren’t asked to play fully realized individuals, which could have undermined the film’s system of identification, but probably would have strengthened its human tragedy.