The Lives of OthersNot since “Das Boot” way back in 1981 has a German language film received this much international praise and recognition. But Foreign Language Oscar and all the hype aside, Florian Henkel von Donnersmark’s Stasi drama is in many ways a very personal film for and of the German people. The East-German Communist state’s obsession with spying on its people and the level of detail and finesse with which it was carried out is shocking. However “The Lives of Others” is never bogged down by this nor does it even try to bring across an anti-Communist message. Furthermore, serving up a very generous dose of black humour and mystery alongside the drama, the examination is as entertaining and intriguing as it is thought-provoking.

The story (also by von Donnersmark) is concerned with obsessive Stasi surveillance man Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe), determined to crack the apparently squeaky-clean playwright and author Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch). However after bugging his apartment and gradually noting ever detail of Dreyman’s life and in particular his relationship with actress Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck), Wiesler, his own life drab and empty, begins to question which side he’s on. When Dreyman is convinced by his friends to write a (for the GDR) controversial article to be published in western news magazine Der Spiegel, Wiesler chooses to protect the couple, putting in danger his rising career in the Stasi. With the fantastic screenplay, the film is accomplished on every possible level, from its muted colours of drab greys and browns to the outstanding performances from the entire cast, “The Lives of Others” really does have masterpiece written all over it. It is a very difficult balance to maintain between exposing the horrifying details of surveillance such as an odour sample from each person to be used for sniffing dogs, or the cruel means of interrogation, and the impossible situations people were placed in by this surveillance system, in other words the human aspects and emotions. But in his directorial debut, von Donnersmark has conjured just the right mix of both and created a world that will stay with you long after the credits roll.

For Mühe who was himself investigated by the secret-service of the GDR (and tragically died just over a year after the film’s release), this is the role of his career. His portrayal of the chilling and distant secret-service employee is extremely cold yet he manages to draw the audience in and sympathise with his situation. Koch meanwhile also acts very well as the dramatist who would do no wrong but, troubled by the suicide of an author friend, eventually turns to writing anti-GDR and anti-Stasi material. Not once does he suspect that his every move is in fact being recorded, so the climax of the story becomes all the more significant for him as he realises that it was Wielser who in fact saved his career while at the same time sacrificing his own. That the pair were not nominated for Oscars is surprising but highlights once again that the Academy needs to open up to foreign productions in other categories as well. A nomination for Best Original Screenplay should have been the minimum requirement.

The Lives of Others OSTThe film’s score was co-written by Lebanese composer Gabriel Yared and Stephane Moucha. Their contribution is significant with music often placed very high up in the sound mix, thus really enunciating the drama and emotion on screen. Despite this, the music is relatively restrained, complementing the action rather than distracting from it.  The soundtrack is based around two distinct themes, one for playwright Dreyman and his girlfriend, the other used to accompany scenes of Stasi activity. Both utilise a largely string ensemble to conjure melodrama for the former and a pulsating action rhythm for the latter. Mingled with the original score are several songs as well as classical works, mostly source music. The European album features these as well as the score cues while the american album from Varese Sarabande is a score-only approach. While some might argue that the score fulfils its purpose adequately and no more, the continuous string beats serve the film very well in making the listener ever so slightly nervous. Definitely a recommended soundtrack.

In summation, “The Lives of Others” is an excellent portrayal of human failure and personal tragedy amidst a backdrop of political and intelligence intrigue. Sadly, some of the dark humour is lost in its translation from German, so it is certainly worth while researching these bits to complement your appreciation of the film. Or you could learn German. In any case, this is filmmaking you really shouldn’t want to miss both in its spy and drama genre and as an introduction to German films in general you simply won’t find any better.



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