Sunday, February 05, 2012

The Lives of Others

Originally Written and Posted at on 2/26/09 w/ Additional Edits.

Written & directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others) tells the story of East Germans secret police monitoring the culture scene of East Berlin. When one of its surveillance agents uncovers something he hears involving one of his superiors and a music composer's girlfriend, he goes into a moral dilemma that puts him into bigger trouble. A suspenseful drama filled with intrigue, it's considered to be one of the finest films of European cinema. Starring Ulrich Muhe, Martina Gedeck, Sebastian Koch, and Ulrich Tukur. Das Leben der Anderen is a film that truly deserves the accolades it receives.

It's 1984 in East Berlin as Captain Gerd Weisler (Ulrich Muhe) interrogates someone with its recordings for his class. Weisler's methods prove to be controversial but gets results as his longtime friend Lt. Col. Grubitz (Ulrich Tukur) watches. Though Grubitz is one of his superiors, he remains a close friend as the two get invited to watch a play by Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) that stars his girlfriend Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck). Attending the play is a minister named Hempf (Thomas Thieme) who has a thing for Christa-Maria while he suspects that Dreyman is leaning towards pro-Western idealism. Weisler is hired to watch Dreyman by getting his team to setup small microphones and such to bug Dreyman at home.

Dreyman remains loyal to the East German cause despite his friendship with blacklisted play director and mentor Jerska (Volkmar Kleinert) as Weisler continues to records conversations at a party. He also learns that Christa-Maria has been seeing Hempf as Weisler becomes convinced that he's only doing surveillance for the minister's personal reasons instead of something political. Now in a moral dilemma, Weisler continues to do his duties as he makes things happen for Dreyman who learns what Christa-Maria has been doing. When Dreyman learns that Jerska died, he decides to write something about Jerska's death in relation to other political-motivated deaths. With the help of a couple of friends and a publisher who knows how to transfer papers to the West, Weisler secretly helps them.

While trying to remain cool in the situation to Grubitz, the investigation continues with Hempf becoming very upset. While Christa-Maria deals with her own troubles while continuing to get illegal prescription pills, Dreyman's paper under an anonymous name goes public with Hempf and Grubitz going further into the investigation. With Grubitz leading a search into his house, nothing is found as Weisler finds himself into some trouble. With Christa-Maria targeted and Weisler, who had met her previously, being the top interrogator. Weisler makes some moves that would impact everyone including his own.

Films about surveillance and moral conscience had always made for great suspense, notably Francis Ford Coppola's 1974 classic film The Conversation. While von Donnersmarck's film does remind audiences a bit of Coppola's film in terms of its morally-conscience protagonist and suspenseful drama, the tone of the film is very different due to its political surroundings. What von Donnersmarck reveals is what it was like in East Germany and East Berlin as it's under the watch of the Soviet Union. Western ideology and other anti-Eastern sentiments would get anyone in trouble. Neighbors are forced to be informants while those who are suspected would have their homes bugged unaware of it. It's what von Donnersmarck does to give audiences, who probably had never been to East Germany in the 1980s of what it was like with not much freedom there at the time. Yet, the film spans nine years from 1984 East Berlin to 1993 unified Germany.

The screenplay isn't just about suspense and drama in terms its mood but it's really about characters and their motivations. When audience first meet Weisler, he's this cold, unemotional, determined man who just does his job while at home. There's not much for him except the occasional visit from a hooker as he lives all alone. Yet when he's assigned to spy on Dreyman, it's just a job for him by his government which he always will do. Yet, when it involves a government official who is abusing his powers for all of the wrong reasons. Weisler suddenly goes from this cold, emotionless surveillance man to a man with a conscience. It's von Donnersmarck's emphasis on development for both Weisler and Dreyman that really makes the film compelling. Weisler gains a conscience while Dreyman is motivated to become politically-angry following the death of his mentor and his girlfriend's abuse from that same government official.

The direction of von Donnersmarck is truly mesmerizing in its emphasis on drama and suspense. With little humor in the film, it's all about atmosphere as everyone has to be careful in what they say while the camera constantly moves to play along with its suspense. The dark mood revels throughout the entirety of the film except for the last twenty minutes in its aftermath over what was revealed and such. What von Donnersmarck does that is that in building suspense, it's not about a slow build-up but rather goes for it while giving time to display drama that leads to suspense. He also makes sure that the characters all interact with the exception of two major characters. It's all about what one character does for another and his own as von Donnersmarck makes a truly spectacular film that is mesmerizing from its first frame to final scene.

Cinematographer Hagen Bogdanski does great work with the film's eerie lighting with some yellowish shading for the exterior nighttime scenes and Dreyman's apartment to set a dark mood. The film's rest of the interior scenes are show with low, green colors with a lot of the cinematography being straightforward for the daytime scenes. Editor Patricia Rommel does excellent work with the editing in playing up to its suspense by building it up slowly while moving leisurely on the drama. The suspense moves fast but also rhythmically along with nice dissolves to a few scenes where Weisler reads text to what is going on with Dreyman.

Production designer Silke Buhr, set decorator Frank Noack, and art director Christiane Rothe do some very good work with the art direction in the look of Dreyman's apartment and the top floor that Weisler is working at. The room where Weisler works along with diagrams of Dreyman's room is truly phenomenal in its atmosphere while displaying a harshness in a few sets like the bar where Weisler and Christa-Maria meet for the first time. Costume designer Gabriele Binder does fantastic work with the costumes from the bland jacket that Weisler wears on his way to work to the clothing that Christa-Maria wears including a fur hat reminiscent of Russian caps. Sound designer/editor Christoph von Schonburg does amazing work with the sound to capture the conversations that goes on. The suspense that von Schonburg does with the dialogue and recordings give the film its eerie atmosphere and dark tone as the sound work is truly worth noting in the film's technical delivery.

The music by Gabriel Yared and Stephane Moucha is filled with wonderful arrangements ranging from suspenseful to dramatic in its array of arrangements. Along with German rock and pop music, it's the orchestral score of Yared and Moucha that really shines in playing up to its drama and eerie tone.

The casting by Simone Bar is phenomenal with notable small performances from Charly Hubner as Weisler's assistant Udo, Herbert Knaup as Dreyman's publisher friend Gregor Hessenstein, Hans-Uwe Bauer as Dreyman's friend Paul Hauser, and Volkmar Kleinert as Dreyman's mentor Jerska. Thomas Thieme is very good as Hempf, a minister who uses his powers to get Dreyman spied only to be abusing his powers for his own personal gains. Ulrich Tukur is excellent as Lt. Col. Grubitz, Weisler's longtime friend and superior who checks on the reports only to realize that Weisler might be up to something. Martina Gedeck is wonderful as Christa-Maria Sieland, Dreyman's girlfriend who is in the middle of the investigation as she is tormented by Hempf while dealing with her own insecurities.

Sebastian Koch is great as Dreyman, a playwright who is urged to become political following what happened to Christa-Maria and his mentor Jerska as he deals with death and his own role. Koch's understated, troubled performance is mesmerizing to watch as he makes Dreyman from a playwright who doesn't want to get in trouble to someone who rebels quietly. The film's best performance is Ulrich Muhe in one of his final film roles before his sudden death in July of 2007. Muhe's subtle, quiet, and stone-face performance is magnificent as he starts out as a man void of emotion and conscience only to develop as a man of conscience with compassion. Muhe's performance is really the heart of the film as he plays an unlikely hero who gains something valuable despite some great cost. Muhe may not be known in the U.S. but his performance is truly unforgettable.

Das Leben der Anderen is truly one of the best films to come out in the past years from Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck featuring a brilliant performance from the late Ulrich Muhe. Fans of suspenseful dramas will find something refreshing and compelling in von Donnersmarck's take on surveillance-driven films. It's a film that is intelligently made with characters that are very memorable along with a lead who gains great development as he deals with conscience. The film is also a great history lesson about what went on in East Berlin at the time when Germany was separated before the Berlin Wall came down. In the end, Das Leben der Anderen is a mesmerizing masterpiece from newcomer Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck.

(C) thevoid99 2012


Chip Lary said...

Damn, I didn't know that Muhe had passed away. That adds even more poignancy to the whole situation.

I loved this movie. I gave it one of my rare five stars out of five ratings.

thevoid99 said...

It's one of those great movies that really took everyone by surprise when it came out. Everyone thought Pan's Labyrinth was going to win that year but it looked like they chose the right film.