One of the best films of 2006 was Guillermo del Toro’s fantasy/historical drama “Pan’s Labyrinth.” That film was slated to win the Oscar for best foreign film and much to the dismay of many Americans (including this film critic), it lost to a fairly unknown German film called “The Lives of Others.” The film is the directorial debut of Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck and it is an amazing entrance into the film making world for the young German director.
The film takes place before and right after the fall of the Berlin Wall in Eastern Germany and chronicles the relationship between a liberal couple (Georg Dreyman, an author played by Sebastian Koch and his actress girlfriend Christa-Maria Sieland who is played by Martina Gedeck) and a member of the Stasi or East German secret service agent named Weisler played by the late Ulrich Mühe. Weisler is one of the best agents in the East German secret police, known for his incredible ability to break down “traitors” into telling the truth.
The film opens up with one such interview while Weisler is simultaneously shown teaching a college class of young agents-in-training. One student asks his professor why the tactics are inhumane and Weisler stares at the pupil and then marks the situation in his teacher’s notebook. This guy is very serious and comes off as the obvious villain of the film. At least, that’s what the von Donnersmarck wants us to think.
As the film progresses Weisler is assigned to watch the previously mentioned couple of which his superiors believe are rebels. He taps into their world, hearing everything from their normal conversations, to sex, to their secret meetings. He soon realizes the pain and agony that this couple is going through with the overbearing fear of capture at every corner. Dreyman’s secret plans to let out the word of how terrible the conditions are in addition to Sieland’s involvement with a major East German figure, begin Weisler’s questioning of his beliefs towards his country and his career. The drama throughout the entire film gets more and more intense, especially as the entire plan seems to be in the grasp of the Stasi. Weisler eventually must make an ethical choice and the whole film works out perfectly.
“The Lives of Others” is a film that is impossible to forget. The action rises through much of the film and the major climax hits within the last twenty minutes and at that point the viewer can’t help but be mesmerized. Ulrich Mühe is the standout performer. He doesn’t say a lot in the film but instead acts with his eyes. His character gets lost in this captivating story that he hears through his headphones day and night. Weisler goes from a cold heartless authority to a real and compassionate man. Unfortunately, the actor recently passed on so we will never be able to look forward to a new performance.
This film is a must see, and won the Academy Award for a very good reason. Definitely rent “The Lives of Others” as soon as you possibly can, it is not to be missed by any fan of film. Grade: A