One of the five Best Foreign Film nominees for this year's Oscars, The Lives of Others essays life under the Stasi secret police in 1984 East Germany. With 100,000 employees and twice as many civilian informers, the Stasi strangled free expression and spread fear or recrimination. Under constant surveillance, all the world truly is a stage. Writer-director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck paints a glumly absurd landscape, and if the story of a stodgy but conflicted Stasi captain gives sympathy to a historical devil, it also allows for an intriguing angle on the evergreen cinematic theme of voyeurism.
At the story's outset, we observe Capt. Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe) near the top of the Stasi heap, routinely conducting 40-hour interrogations, narrowing his eyes at the slightest hint of subversion, and suggesting strategies to his superiors. When he expresses doubt as to the loyalty of playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch), an apparent loyalist, Wiesler lands the duty of spying on Dreyman and Christa (Martina Gedeck), his leading lady and lover. A government minister's special sexual interest in Christa complicates matters, as does Wiesler's vulnerability to the details of a functional domestic partnership--a virtue that has utterly escaped him.
In fact, Dreyman is a quiet subversive, writing in secret and meeting with resistant elements. Meanwhile, Christa chooses to keep her own secret life—unsuccessfully fending off the advances of Minister Hempf (Thomas Thieme)—from her lover. As "grey man" Wiesler obsessively listens in on the couple, he begins to envy their life together and lament their tragic circumstances. When he comes upon valuable intelligence that can be used against the couple, he finds himself torn as to how to proceed.
Donnersmarck brings undeniable smarts to his "cold hands, warm heart" melodrama, even if it's an uphill road to believe in the sentimental inner life of the outwardly ruthless Wiesler. Would a committed, high-level Stasi captain on the job melt at a piano piece called "Sonata for a Good Man"? Probably not, but Donnersmarck takes care to note Lenin's assertion that if he kept listening to Beethoven's "Apassionada," he couldn't finish the Revolution, while Dreyman's plays express "love for mankind...belief that people can change," themes clearly shared by The Lives of Others. The writer-director also encourages us to see Wiesler's actions as triggered by specific and credible feelings: jealous of the intimacy of his subjects, he hires a prostitute; jealous of their culture, he steals and reads a Brecht paperback.
But the film's most intriguing notion is that of life perceived as art. "They decide what we play, who is to act, and who is to direct," says Christa. She and Georg are dolls of the state, being toyed with for the amusement of others; they are also unwitting actors performing a 24-7 chamber play for their surveillors. Wiesler approaches one of his subjects in the manner of a fan, and later winds up acting a scene for an audience nominally concealed by a two-way mirror. What we're capable of doing under cover of secrecy and how we act when under a microscope are disturbing dysfunctions indeed, and ones that don't disappear in ostensibly free society.
Sony's audio-visual presentation of The Lives of Others is typically technically proficient. Bonus features include commentary by Donnersmarck, as well as the in-depth "Interview with Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck" (29:59), both conducted in English. "The Lives of Others Making-Of" (19:27) is in subtitled German, and includes interviews with Donnersmarck; producers Quirin Berg and Max Wiedemann; actors Sebastian Koch, Ulrich Mühe, Martina Gedeck, and Ulrich Tukur; and historical consultant Dr. Manfred Wilke. Though no on-set footage is provided, this very informative doc does include a montage of the film's sweep at the Lola Awards.
Seven deleted scenes have optional director's commentary and a "Play All" feature: Wiseler's Evening" (1:27), "Hoarding of Goods" (:57), "Brecht's Animal Poems" (1:22), "Farewell to Jerska" (1:38), "Ute" (1:54), "The Cactus" (:35), and "Party of Democratic Socialism" (:59). Disc One launches with trailers for The Jane Austen Book Club and Black Book. Also accessible from a menu of previews: Offside, Angel-A, Molière, Paprika, Sleuth, Interview, The Valet, and Driving Lessons. One could hardly ask for a more thorough special edition for this year's Oscar-winning Best Foreign Language Film.
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