“The Lives of Others” is a miracle of a film that manages to be both subtle and intense at the same time.
What’s even more astounding is that this is the feature debut from German writer-director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, who previously had made a few shorts and done some TV work.
The international awards and acclaim “The Lives of Others” has received, along with a well-deserved Oscar nomination in the foreign-language category, should change all that.
Von Donnersmarck confidently paints a claustrophobic picture of East Berlin in the mid-1980s through the relationship between a playwright (Sebastian Koch), his actress-girlfriend (Martina Gedeck) and the secret police captain (Ulrich Muhe) assigned to spy on them. All three of them alter each others’ lives in ways large and small, accidental and profound.
It’s a political thriller but also a portrait of unexpected humanity — a marvel of controlled storytelling and mood, with brilliant performances. Then again, Henckel von Donnersmarck gives his actors rich material with which to work. These all feel like real people, flawed people, capable of mistakes and change who can surprise us as well as themselves.
Hagen Bogdanski’s spare cinematography makes us feel as if we’re right with the characters inside the cramped apartments and offices they inhabit, and the insistent score from Oscar winner Gabriel Yared (“The English Patient”) heightens the already palpable sense of tension.
Henckel Von Donnersmarck grew up in the West but would visit East Germany as a child with his parents; he has said that the fear of adults he experienced then was exciting to him, and he makes it exciting for us. The members of the Stasi (the East German secret police) who rule this place — cruelly, arbitrarily, completely — aren’t caricatures but fully fleshed-out beings who inspire a real feeling of dread. They do what they want, when they want, because they can. They seem to get off on it.
The portly Bruno Hempf (Thomas Thieme), minister of the state security, certainly does. He orders a complete surveillance of playwright Georg Dreyman and his live-in girlfriend, Christa-Maria Sieland, not because he suspects they’ve done anything to undermine the Socialist party but because Hempf wants her for himself. (And what he does to her, what she allows him to do to her to protect the man she loves, is painful to watch.)
Capt. Gerd Weisler, who’s in charge of bugging their apartment and listening in on their conversations, phone calls, comings and goings, at first takes his responsibility seriously, as he takes everything seriously. One look at his spartan apartment shows us he has no life and doesn’t want one.
But gradually, as Weisler gets to know Georg and Christa, he becomes fascinated by their joie de vivre, their love for music, art and literature. And gradually, we learn to sympathize with him in a way that initially would have seemed impossible. The hollow blue eyes that seemed cold and menacing at first ultimately reveal a deeper sadness, a need to connect.
Weisler finds himself withholding details about the couple from his boss, the ruthlessly ambitious culture minister (Ulrich Tukur, who’s frighteningly good), even though he knows doing so could jeopardize his career. But he’s not the only one making sacrifices that have significant consequences.
To reveal much more would be a disservice. We’ll just say there are twists, ones that are both touching and stunning. And afterward they leave you wanting to see more from this filmmaker who clearly has a rare gift.