The Lives Of Others* Review

The Lives Of Others film still


Almost water tight, but not quite. Still, a resounding success.

This taut, pre-glasnost potboiler from irritatingly young debutant Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck (34 in May) is further proof after last year’s Requiem (and, to a lesser extent, Perfume) that German cinema is in its finest form since Herzog, Fassbinder and Wenders were at the height of their powers.

With a knowing pre-credits doff-of-the-cap to George Orwell, the year is 1984 and the German Democratic Republic maintains a firm stranglehold over its subjects via a network of spy rings and secret state enforcers (the Stasi) who operate with a cold moral detachment.

Described as the 'shield and sword of the ruling party', the Stasi’s manner of extolling the virtues of Soviet communism invariably requires phones to be tapped, panty drawers to be rifled and back issues of Der Spiegel to be shaken in the hope that an essay on ‘Why the glorious Dynamo Berlin are bad for football’ falls to the floor.

This whirlwind melodrama centres on the unsmiling Captain Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe), your typical GDR party man, who sports an anodyne grey anorak and functional crew cut while implementing his work with glassy precision. It is Wiesler’s lapse of loyalty during a routine mission that acts as the film’s dramatic nucleus.

He is ordered to entrap a sympathetic playwright (Sebastian Koch) suspected of subversion, while monitoring his pill-popping thesp girlfriend (Martina Gedeck), who happens to be the object of the pig-like Minister of Culture’s affections.

With its themes of voyeurism, paranoia, the abuse of power and the inescapable degradation of totalitarian states, The Lives of Others plays out like a mixture of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation and Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. But it is also suffused with a righteous political anger, shaking its finger at various contemporary regimes with a penchant for waiving civil rights in the name of Patriot and Terrorism Acts.

While the performances are uniformly excellent (in particular Mühe) and the tighter-than-tight plotting is a thing of beauty, the film does contain a few false notes. The lion’s share of GDR dissidents were writers, actors and artists, so why Wiesler’s flirtation with humanism should rear its head during this particular case seems somewhat dubious.

Also, while the dramatic hue may have been notably blackened by the absence of the pale oranges and powder blues of good-natured ‘Ostalgia’-fest Good Bye Lenin!, the film remains stubbornly critical of the East German power structure, suggesting (perhaps a little naïvely) that it facilitated as much corruption as it was able to quell.

But in truth, such nitpicking pales in the face of a film that positively brims with heart and head. Few directors could take such potentially bland subject matter and twist it so successfully into an engaging study of characters on the political and ethical margins. All in all, it’s a stunning first feature, thoroughly deserving of huge success.


Generated great word of mouth after various successful festival screenings.



Grips like a vice throughout.


In Retrospect

Almost water tight, but not quite. Still, a resounding success.

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