Sunday, December 2, 2007

The Lives of Others

You probably don't need me to tell you that the German film The Lives of Others is worth seeing. It won the Academy Award. It's already been reviewed by my simian doppleganger Dr. Monkerstein. Still, I am going to put in my two cents.

You should see The Lives of Others now that it is available on DVD.

There's a lot of stuff going on in the story, but for a short synopsis, the movie revolves around the characters played by Martina Gedeck and Sebastian Koch. They play theater folk, and actress and her playwright husband in East Germany in 1984. For reasons I won't bring up here, it is decided that they should be under surveillance, and an operative of the East German secret police known as Stasi puts bugs in their apartment and begins listening.

One of the things I love about foreign films is when I see an incredible actor I've never seen before, as good as anyone I've ever seen on screen, but without any particular baggage of other roles or the tabloid version of his or her personal life I might have read or seen on TV. In this movie, that is Ulrich Mühe, playing the Stasi agent listening in. 90% of his role is silent film acting and he's brilliant. He conveys the dedication and intelligence and loneliness of his character in small gestures and little glances. Other Stasi agents in the movie come off as brutal swine and bullies, and even he is scary in several scenes, but he's still a human being under all the rest of the stuff, and you have something of a rooting interest in him.

Mühe's own life is remarkable in itself, though in some ways this spoils my readers' innocent viewing of the film with some tabloid details about his life. An East German himself, he was a construction worker and a border guard in Berlin before he became an actor. He was able to get his own Stasi file after the Berlin Wall fell, only to find his second wife Jenny Gröllmann had been informing on him. This information became public in the divorce proceedings, but she sued him to keep him from publishing this in his book. Plagued with stomach ulcers for most of his adult life, Mühe died from stomach cancer earlier this year at the age of 54.

This is also the first feature film for writer-director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. He gives the commentary on the DVD in almost accentless English, and lavishes praise on his lead actors and many people in smaller roles, as well as his excellent crew. Before this movie, von Donnersmarck only made short films, and getting actors of this caliber was his unattainable dream, so he was like a kid in a candy store when he was able to assemble this terrific cast.

I don't want to give away any more of the plot, but I once again recommend the film. In so many ways, it's the kind of film that can't get made in this country, though I can't shake the feeling a story like this is happening here today.

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