Dir/scr. Florian Henckel Von Donnersmarck.Ger. 2006. 137mins.
A remarkably confident debut from Germany’s Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, The Lives Of Others is a deft, gripping Communist era drama with marked breakout potential. Whileit could be trimmed in places, it is an ambitious attempt to portray the Stasi - East Germany’s secret police service - that aimshigh and largely succeeds; a complex emotional feature, played out largelybetween three solid leads, which is anchored by assured writing and confidentdirection.
International arthouse success at least is certain; despite its lengthyrunning time, The Lives Of Others will easily attract fans of recentwell-plotted German fare such as Downfall and Sophie Scholl. Nor is a shot at abest foreign language Oscar nomination out of the question, what with its strong box office at home and seven Lola awards, although it lacks the historic Hitler heft of Downfall and shuns showy action sequences in favour of a slow, effectiveburn and a humdinger of an emotional payoff.
An under-the-radar title,which oddly did not appear in official selection at Berlin or Cannes - where itwas a market pick-up for Sony Pictures Classics for North America and went to30 other territories through Beta Cinema - The Lives Of Others should enjoy a successful international rollout accompaniedby glowing notices. Its scanty $2m budget also marks 33-year-oldwriter-director Henckel von Donnersmarckas a talent to watch.
Set in East Berlin in 1984, the story opens with spymaster Captain Gerd Wiesler (Muehe) instructing pupils with chilling calm on Stasiinterrogation techniques. An emotionally sealed-off career apparatchik, hecomes to see successful playwright Georg Dreyman (Koch), one of the few artists to be read in theWest, as almost a challenge. This hubris, complicatedby the fact that ex-Stasi minister Hempf (Thieme) has designs on Dreyman’s beautiful actress girlfriend Christa Maria (Gedeck) sets the tone for a surveillance which changes thelives of all involved.
As Wielseris exposed to Dreyman’s inner circle in this complex drama, the emotionally-fragile Christa Maria is ensnared and Dreyman himself, affected by the suicide of a persecutedfriend, begins to change his stance as a staunch supporter of the communistregime. Weisler fast finds himself at the apex of adrama in which he slowly begins to play a part - and soon he himself isensnared.
Performances are led by the expressive Ulrich Muehe as Wiesler,whose emotional turnaround is delivered without resort to theatrics. Both Martina Gedeck and Sebastian Koch deliverfully-rounded and credible characters from Donnersmarck’s screenplay.
Credit too must go to art director Silke Buhr; the grey, drab world of the former East Germany is as much a character in this piece as the remarkable people who inhabit it. The score, from Gabriel Yared and Stephan Moucha, is sometimes overstated.
Wiederman & Berg Filmproduktion
Buena Vista International