Martina Gedeck, Sebastian Koch, and Ulrich Mühe in Das Leben der Anderen (2006)

LIVES OF OTHERS, THE (Leben der Anderen, Das)

(director/writer: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck; cinematographer: Hagen Bogdanski; editor: Patricia Rommel; music: Stéphane Moucha/Gabriel Yared; cast: Ulrich Mühe (Captain Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler), Sebastian Koch (Georg Dreyman), Martina Gedeck (Christa-Maria Sieland), Ulrich Tukur (Oberstleutnant Anton Grubitz), Thomas Thieme (Minister Bruno Hempf), Hans-Uwe Bauer (Paul Hauser), Volkmar Kleinert (Albert Jerska), Charly Hübner (Sgt. Udo Leye); Runtime: 137; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Quirin Berg/Max Wiedemann; Sony Pictures Classics; 2006-Germany-in German-with English subtitles)
“A harsh history lesson that looks back at the drab East Berlin of 1984.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A harsh history lesson that looks back at the drab East Berlin of 1984, before Glasnost under Russian Premier Gorbachev and the coming down of the Berlin Wall in 1989, when Germany was split in half and faced with a depressed society in the Communist-controlled East (the German Democratic Republic) that was regularly spied on by the Stasi–the secret police that boasted of 100,000 agents and twice as many informants. The Stasi was created to eliminate the “enemies of socialism,” which mainly called for policing the intelligentsia and arty crowd.

It’s two films in one, working out fine as a political thriller but falling flat as a human drama, with everything turning out way too pat and uninvolving. In his debut, the 33-year-old director-writer Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck ably but coldly pulls the strings for each character, who were intriguing but not the sorts that are easy to warm up to and always seemed more real as stereotypes than real people. But Florian does brilliantly set the stage for what it was like living in such a repressed climate by creating such a brooding atmosphere, where distrust and fear were common. East Berlin is pictured as shaded like a gray slab of stone, whose empty dark streets, lack of laughter in its people and scary prison interrogation rooms form the background for an oppressed people and a stagnant art community. The melancholy film is haunting and is best reflected in the biting score ”Sonata for a Good Man,” composed for the film by Gabriel Yared, which serves to set the tone for the dark narrative.

The Lives of Others chronicles the consequences of the powerful piggish Minister of Culture, Bruno Hempf’s (Thomas Thieme), decision to investigate the lives of the loyal socialist successful playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) and his attractive actress girlfriend Christa-Maria Sieland) (Martina Gedeck), who happens to secretly be his mistress and owes him for keeping her supplied in illegal drugs and working on the stage. The investigation is under the authority of the ambitious and slyly cunning Grubitz (Ulrich Tukur), who turns over the details of the investigation to gaunt, unsmiling idealistic socialist Captain Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe). They bug Dreyman’s apartment and have a 24-hour phone tap, where Wiesler and Sgt. Udo Leye take turns monitoring the calls from the upstairs apartment with Wiesler sneaking into the vic’s pad to borrow Brecht books to read while carrying out his mission. The action perks up when the celebrated writer’s favorite director, Albert Jerska, a rebel ten years ago and now unofficially blacklisted, hangs himself because he can’t get work. Dreyman has a typewriter smuggled in from the West that can’t be traced to him and writes an article about the high rate of suicides among the artists in East Germany, which is published in West Berlin by its leading newspaper Der Spiegel. Wiesler is aware that Dreyman wrote the article, but has become disillusioned with his government (yearning to be less robotic and more a happy man in his convictions like the playwright) and goes out of the way to heroically protect the spied upon couple, avoiding complete catastrophe, to his detriment career-wise.

It was a big box-office success in Germany and acclaimed by the critics, but struck me as missing a few ingredients to receive all those kudos. The performances are solid, the photography is noir-like in intensity, the historical recreation is first-rate, and the tale is compelling in the way its surveillance system tragically shapes its sick society, but it left me only partly satisfied as the sappy humanism never felt right, its sense of closure seemed misplaced and it never set off any sparks to indicate that this was a great character drama.