CrankyÕs Flickershow Reviews
By Neil Richter
The Zephyr, Galesburg
One of the safest picks at last yearÕs academy awards was in the best foreign film category. Guillermo del-ToroÕs acclaimed fantasy, PanÕs Labyrinth, was already riding high with five other nominations, three of which it took home by the end of the night. Del-ToroÕs achievement seemed all but unstoppable. Then, a funny thing happened. In one of the only real twists of the night, an unassuming German film crept out of nowhere and took the gold statuette. That movie was The Lives of Others. Compared to the juggernaut of PanÕs Labyrinth, Das Leben Der Anderen, as it is known in its home country, was every inch the underdog in its category. However, one viewing proves that this film is every bit the out-and-out masterpiece that PanÕs Labyrinth came so perilously close to being. Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck (bet the kids in school loved that name) has crafted a meticulously plotted, emotionally engaging miracle of a film; and this is only his first effort as a director outside of German television.
The Lives of Others takes place in the grey, grey world of East Berlin, circa 1984. The Wall still stands high. The state police keep an iron grip around the populace. The Stasi, as they were known, use a mixture of surveillance and psychological torture to maintain control. Something as simple as an innocent joke can cost someone their job, or their freedom. Wives are encouraged to report on their husbands. Neighbors keep a close eye on each other. In short, OrwellÕs predictions for that fateful date have come true for those unfortunate enough to live in East Berlin. The scary thing is that DonnersmarckÕs vision is frighteningly true to life. When the Berlin wall came crashing down, thousands of ordinary BerlinerÕs were shocked to discover that the Stasi had been spying on them for years without their knowledge. Into this grim vision steps Stasi agent Gerd Wiesler, played by popular German film actor Ulrich Muhe, who died tragically of cancer earlier this month. Wiesler is a ruthless interrogator for the Stasi. As Muhe plays him, Wiesler is a hollow shell of a man: humorless, unassuming, and bland. WieslerÕs utter lack of a defining trait goes all the way down to his wardrobe, which comes in a vast array of grays, and nothing else. In other words, he is the perfect Stasi agent, a man defined only by his fanatical devotion to a cause. The plot is set in motion when Wiesler is sent to bug the house of a popular playwright and his girlfriend. What the audience comes to realize is that this particular mission is less about protecting the Republic, and more about the impure designs a government bigwig has on the playwrightÕs fiancˇe. Wiesler is, in effect, being used to get somebody elseÕs romantic rival out of the way. So far, so typical. This is where DonnersmarckÕs narrative gets interesting. WieslerÕs endless hours in an empty upstairs attic, listening in on the life of this bohemian couple, begin to take its toll on him. Headphones clamped firmly to his thin, bloodless face, writing reports on every aspect of the goings-on downstairs, something begins to happen to Wiesler. Perhaps for the first time, he bears witness to a life far different from his own. A life of intimacy and warmth, where human connection isnÕt simply cause for suspicion and paranoia. Seem sappy? Trust me, itÕs anything but. Slowly, fissures start to crack open within this small gray man. Eventually, he decides to sabotage his own operation, putting himself at odds with everything he has embraced as an agent of the Stasi. IÕll stop my synopsis here, as to not spoil the intricate machinations that follow.
But thereÕs more, so much more. IÕve barely scratched the surface of the simple, yet vast invention that Donnersmarck has created. Therefore, IÕll narrow it down to two small details that define this as a great film. The first is MuheÕs performance. Seeing this film breaks your heart twice over when you realize that the actor is dead. He is that good here. Months ago I complained about Matt DamonÕs performance in The Good Shepherd. I said that, though he was effective, his character was a complete and utter cipher, closed off from the audience in every way. Muhe takes a very similar character and works wonders. His Wiesler seems to communicate with the audience telepathically. He is that subtle. A perfect example would be Muhe listening to a piece of classical music from his attic perch. His face is blank, his eyes still, his posture rigid. The single tear that he sheds looks more like a makeup trick than anything organic. Still, something is going on. Something big. How is it that we can see everything, can empathize so completely with an actor, when they give us absolutely nothing to hang onto. This is the type of performance that comes along only once in a great while. ItÕs truly a shame that we will never see another one out of this actor again.
The second detail is the cinematography. Many have called The Lives of Others visually unremarkable. True, the drab apartments, offices, and buildings that form the landscape of this film are boring and derivitive. ThatÕs the point. Donnersmarck and his cinematographer, Hagen Bogdanski have done a brilliant job of squeezing every speck of color out of each frame. The Stasi offices look like the interior of some kind of IKEA from hell where everything comes in grey, brown or off-white. The police uniforms are made up of oversized slate-colored trenchcoats transported straight of out Casablanca, only this time theyÕre being worn by gray, aging civil servants. One rarely sees a world of quiet desperation so thoroughly put-forth. To become entranced by this filmÕs atmosphere, to imagine oneself in such a place, is truly terrifying. It is within this environment that Donnersmarck, along with his cast and crew, take the audience. The story he tells within these interiors is one where the thrills come not from explosions, shootings, and star-power; but from character and motivation. It is a distinctly old-fashioned notion, one that people return to black and white films for again and again, decades and decades after their release. Obviously, there is something about it that is timeless, that draws us. Too bad so few films embrace it. In the meantime, we have The Lives of Others to tide us over. Check this one out if you get the chance.