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Truth and reconciliation in a way only possible in East Germany

  • Jan 11, 2008
Pros: Brilliant story, brilliant way of telling it

Cons: Might be too slow and subtle for a casual viewer

The Bottom Line: 30 words aren't enough. If you are a movie fan willing to pay attention to a deliberate, slow pace, then you should enjoy this film.

Plot Details: This opinion reveals minor details about the movie''s plot.

Auteur Florian Henckle von Donnersmarck created The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen). Surveillance plays a huge role in this film weighing in at a bit over 2 hours. From time to time, the film can be as stagnant as endless surveillance. However . . .

The film is set principally from the middle of 1984 through the beginning of 1985 in East Germany (DDR, or GDR depending on your language of acronym). The Lives of Others is the tale of one member of the Stasi higher-ups who starts surveying a playwright and his actress girlfriend.

The Stasi were the hated secret police (100,000 strong, augmented with 200,000 informants at any given time). The Stasi captain, Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Muhe), decides to start a spy operation centering on Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) and Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck). Dreyman is considered to be a “safe,” not subversive artist and Ms. Sieland is the most popular stage actress in East Berlin. It seems that Wiesler takes this as a challenge. A team of special ops (or not so special if it happened so frequently) people bug Dreyman’s apartment. Wiesler runs the wiretap operation from the attic of the apartment building.

Wiesler takes his task as seriously as you would expect someone of his years of experience (at the beginning we see him teaching a course at the Stasi College). A problem arises when Weisler learns that Ms. Sieland was involved in an affair with a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. What happens now?

That is exactly why it is worth the time and effort to see this film.

The Lives of Others is the only film set entirely in East Germany I’ve ever seen; despite liking this very much, I don’t know that I want to see another. The film moves at a very deliberate pace that sometimes drags, but even during these moments, it is impossible to ignore that all movements and words are being recorded.

The film is made of films. Imagine the layers of grime and grit that would layer any building east of the Iron Curtain (we’ve all seen enough hopeless pictures of this area to locate and present the file) and you get an idea of how the film works. The Lives of Others is three to four layers thick at any time. It requires a very close attention to realize the “actions” taking place. I would love to say more, but any more would wash away some of the grit and give too much away.
It is pretty easy to play someone with only one expression (this is the case for nearly everyone except Ms. Gedeck). The Stasi all look as stern as the Nazi Gestapo that essentially gave birth to the organization. Dreyman’s fellow artists all look cowed, even neutered. I think this kind of spartan Brechtian acting is exactly what the situation and time demands. It takes a while to get accustomed to this—it is subtle, but not in a more traditional way.

I have to bring up something about the cinematography. The very level camera makes slow pans over faces involved in things even as brutal as interrogations; of course, this is very nerve wracking but fantastic filmmaking. There is something even more significant about the way it is filmed. Often, for interior shots (of the sparse Stasi areas and the bookish clutter of Dreyman’s apartment) Mr. von Donnersmarck uses a very wide angle lens. This means that there is a near fish-eye view of interior spaces. You can imagine many symbolic reasons for this (something I tried to do at first—the pace of the film allows for that level of investigation to occur uninterrupted), but I finally concluded what I believe to be the reason. As the special ops people bugged Dreyman’s apartment, his neighbor watches through her peephole. Wiesler notices this and threatens her should she say a word. Since the film is about spying on neighbors . . . the lens makes you feel like the neighbor across the hall spying on, literally, the lives of others.

I recommend this highly, but only if you have the patience to give it. This isn’t a casual movie, if you drift off for a minute or so, you could find yourself hopelessly lost. This movie is definitely a DVD film so you can back it up in case you do let your mind wander.


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More The Lives of Others reviews
review by . June 30, 2011
Ossi Blues
Donnersmarck's first feature is a film that should have been made years before: a critical, dramatic depiction of East German governmental repression from a personal perspective. The exhaustive research that Donnersmarck conducted whilst writing the screenplay yields a remarkably accurate portrayal of Stasi operations and the damage that the ubiquitous police force frequently inflicted on the citizenry of the GDR.      In one of his last roles, the late Mühe plays Hauptmann …
review by . July 01, 2011
A sad, thoughtful and redemptive film
"Did you know that there are just five types of artists? Your guy, Dreyman, is a Type 4, a 'hysterical anthropocentrist.' Can't bear being alone, always talking, needing friends. That type should never be brought to trial. They thrive on that. Temporary detention is the best way to deal with them. Complete isolation and no set release date. No human contact the whole time, not even with the guards. Good treatment, no harassment, no abuse, no scandals, nothing they could write about …
review by . October 06, 2010
   Auteur Florian Henckle von Donnersmarck created The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen). Surveillance plays a huge role in this film weighing in at a bit over 2 hours. From time to time, the film can be as stagnant as endless surveillance. However . . .      The film is set principally from the middle of 1984 through the beginning of 1985 in East Germany (DDR, or GDR depending on your language of acronym). The Lives of Others is the tale of one member of the …
review by . September 03, 2009
A brilliant film about life in East Berlin, under the GDR, German Democratic Republic, before reunification. It reminds me of my time in Poland and East Berlin before the Wall fell. Love the dated fashion. The story, the writing, the acting, the relevance rank very high. It's so worth viewing.
review by . June 03, 2008
posted in Movie Hype
American college campuses overflow with devotees of Communism. The media are loaded with people who think Che Guevera was a hero and that the United States was wrong for resisting Communism.'     And then along comes a movie like "The Lives Of Others". Yes, it is a dramatization. No, the Stasi did not lavish two or more full time agents on a relatively minor dissident like the playwright here, Georg Dreyman. Yes, Communist bureaucrats did destroy the lives of others, as the Minister …
review by . November 28, 2007
Having never heard of this movie a week ago, I stumbled onto it and am so thankful for dumb luck. It's not often I find myself obsessing over a movie rental but that's what happened here. 3 viewings and wanting more, at the very least I'll rent this again soon. In the end, I'll buy it on dvd. I wish I could have had a chance to see it in a theater. A quiet, textural movie filled with subtle shadings and emotional color where there is little visual color, The Lives of Others gets deeper every time …
review by . September 17, 2007
This is a well-made, very well-acted movie. As a personal bonus to me, the German was Hochdeutsch enough for me to understand it. I was moved to fears and tears by moments of it. However, it is significantly flawed by unrealism of a Hollywood sort not far from James Bond or 24. The bugging of the writer's apartment, during a couple hours of absence, could not have been anything like the hi-tech system shown in the movie. I traveled in East Germany before the Fall of the Wall, and I worked in both …
review by . August 25, 2007
Das Leben der Anderen (The Live of Others) is a powerful film that opens a window to the West of what life was like in East Germany during the time of the Berlin Wall. It is a tense yet balanced work by newcomer writer and director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck who manages to present a tense story of espionage, suspense, intrigue, and political danger without the need for car chases, explosions, gunfire, or any of the usual accoutrements that pulse through other stories of this nature. Instead …
About the reviewer
Paul Savage ()
Ranked #56
I name and describe everything and classify most things. If 'it' already had a name, the one I just gave it is better.
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