"Four stars (NR)
One of the few surprises at this year’s dull Academy Awards came when The Lives of Others won the Oscar in the Best Foreign Film category, beating the highly-acclaimed Pan’s Labyrinth. There will be no comparison of the two films here, but I will suggest that angry Pan fans should consider setting aside their rancor so they can appreciate The Lives of Others on its own terms.
To best enjoy this exceptional film, there are a few things you should know. First, the story is in German with English subtitles, but even the most extreme subtitle haters will likely get so involved in the story that they’ll take in the words without even thinking about it. Second, the plot may seem overly complicated initially, but you’ll get to know the characters and situations quickly. Finally, the movie is two hours and 17 minutes long, but as long as you go pee before entering the theater, you won’t get fidgety.
The Lives of Others deals with art, ethics and redemption in an oppressive setting. The first-time feature by writer-director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck is a rich piece of work, starting off all cool and distant and slowly revealing its heart without ever succumbing to sentimentality. There are twists and turns, but they never feel contrived. With this as a first feature, I look forward to seeing what von Donnersmarck does next.
The story takes place in 1984 East Berlin, where the Stasi, with 100,000 employees and 200,000 informers, closely monitors the populace. Capt. Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Muehe) has his eye on playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch). The government officially approves of Dreyman, “our only non-subversive writer who’s read in the West,” but some suspect that he is too good to be true.
So Wiesler has Dreyman’s apartment bugged. Turns out that, aside from being friends with a few dissident artists — no surprise there — Dreyman is just what he appears to be. But Wiesler, who has no life outside of his work, keeps listening, engrossed in the goings-on of the playwright and his live-in lover, actress Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck).
SPOILER ALERT: THE FOLLOWING REVEALS NOTABLE PLOT POINTS: Then the shake-ups happen. A personal tragedy causes Dreyman to reevaluate his beliefs. Then Wiesler is approached by an officer smitten with the beautiful actress Sieland who wants her boyfriend out of the way. Ordered to find something to pin on Dreyman, Wiesler finds himself questioning authority, something the government drone has never done before. END SPOILERS.
With a surfeit of colorful characters, the inexpressive Wiesler emerges as the central figure of the elaborate tale. Wise decision, and how about a round of applause for Ulrich Muehe’s smart, subtle performance. The entire cast is impressive, but Muehe’s informed restraint is the most important element of this fine film.
One final tip about The Lives of Others. The movie reaches a point that feels like the end, then continues on for several more minutes. Just relax and roll with it, because what happens next is well worth your time.