It’s a rare film that’s both an entertaining story as well as a thought-provoking discourse on the nature of socialism and human interaction. It’s even more impressive when it’s wrought with rich symbolism and breathtaking performances. When a film like that comes along–well, it usually wins an Academy Award, actually.
Those who watched the glitter-soaked spectacle last Sunday will remember The Lives of Others, the unassuming little German film that snatched up best foreign language feature–though no one could be blamed for forgetting it amidst the superfluous montages and introductions. Far beyond deserving the venerated golden statue, The Lives of Others was one of the best films mentioned at the festival in any capacity. In fact, it’s one of the best films of the last decade–from any country.
Based on true events, the film takes place in East Berlin between the end of WII and the fall of the Berlin Wall, following the lives of two men: Hauptmann Wiesler (Ulrich Muhne), a decorated secret policeman, and Georg Dryden (Sebastian Koch), a playwright. Wiesler is ordered to place Dryden under surveillance, and while a power differential seems a necessity at first, it quickly becomes clear that both men are equally victimized by a corrupt state.
Weisler is a loner, rail-thin and balding, a man so dedicated to his job that he has become a twisted personification of it. As corpulence was a trait often negatively attributed to corrupt capitalists by the Soviets during the Cold War, Weisler’s physical appearance suggests a visual parallel to his communist zeal. The symbol seems to stretch farther than that, though, as the most corrupt, despicable characters in the film are visibly the largest. In this way, writer/directer Florian Henckel von Donnarsmarck reverses Soviet imagery much in the same way that Dryden uses the Soviet’s own arrogance to subvert them throughout the film.
Dryden begins as a loyal communist, a man who believes “the GDR is the greatest country on the planet.” But through a series of unintentional provocations on the part of the government, he’s driven to using his talents in drafting anti-state literature. The action of the film flows from the unusual relationship between him and Weisler, who’s become so interested in the playwright that he’s willing to ignore greater and greater transgressions just to continue the vicarious fulfilment he finds in his monitoring duties.
Given the exposition, a common cat-and-mouse plotline would be the expected development, but The Lives of Others never stoops to the overwrought tropes of Hollywood. While the unflinching realism of the story doesn’t lead to a typical guns-blazing climax, it’s the clinical, unbiased analysis of the immensely flawed people within the story that makes their corruption, successes and failures all the more poignant.
Executed with deftness on all accounts, The Lives of Others is powerful, beautiful film that impresses not only with it’s gripping story, but also the depth of intellect in its presentation. Though it may be Donnarsmarck’s earliest feature-length, hopefully the staggering talent he’s displayed is only a precursor to later genius.