The Lives of Others

Sebastian Koch, Ulrich Mühe, and Martina Gedeck star in a film written and directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck.

First-time German director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s engaging The Lives of Others was one of the sensations of the recent Santa Barbara International Film Festival and is also Germany’s bid for the foreign film Academy Award for good reason.

It’s a solid, exciting, and sometimes artful film dealing with an underexposed niche of Iron Curtain-era skullduggery — East Germany’s dreaded Stasi secret police force. Employing 100,000 employees and even more public informants, the Stasi ensured that the Soviet-ruled half of Germany lived in a daily aura of angst. Any small infraction could be grounds for investigation, disruption of lifestyle, and lead one to depression or suicide. It was the Stasi way.

This dark, bizarre context is intriguing enough. The film also has enough gloss, foreign film Oscar bids, and sense of structure to appeal to viewers who might otherwise shy away from the art house. In the fun but complicated math of the film’s narrative circa the mid ’80s, a playwright (Sebastian Koch) is spied on by a coolly professional Stasi agent (Ulrich Mühe), who uncovers dark secrets about his superiors, and uncovers his own moral compass along the way.

Governmentally sanctioned surveillance and a society built on paranoia are, unfortunately, anything but unusual occurrences in the 20th century, or in the 21st — this despite the fall of the Iron Curtain, Berlin Wall, apartheid, and other infamous symbols of repression. The Stasi was unusual, though, partly because of its low profile outside Germany and also because it generated an atmosphere of widespread wariness and back-watching. These days, tourists can pay a visit to the official Stasi museum in the former East Berlin, where the former Stasi Headquarters (seen prominently in the film) froze in time once the wall fell and the doors closed in 1989.

In its own way, von Donnersmarck’s film skillfully (a bit too skillfully) taps into themes and layered perspectives, with notions of voyeurism and fear and loathing common to such classics as Rear Window, Blow Up, and the Coppola-directed great The Conversation. What it doesn’t have, unfortunately, is enough confidence in its edgy themes to adopt a similar filmic style in its storytelling. Cinematic slickness spoils the end result, particularly in its painfully clichéd Hollywood ending. But it nonetheless draws us into a dimly illuminated corner of history with disturbingly relevant modern-day resonances. Can you say PATRIOT Act?


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