Glasnost means openness. Perestroika means restructuring. I remember serving in the Marine Corps and being amazed that we would allow Russian brass to examine our troops. The Russians seemed fascinated at the structure of the Marine Corps (and US Military in general) and the structure that allows NCOs to provide the backbone of leadership. Before Gorbachev was elected head of the Communist Party, places like East Germany remained under the shroud of darkness, secrecy and corruption.
The Lives of Others takes place in East Germany five years before the Berlin Wall was ripped down by the people. East Germany in 1984 was still monitored closely by the secret police (Stasi) who used extreme measures to maintain control and limit embarrassment to the government. It is estimated that 1984 Germany had 100,000 Stasi and 200,000 informants. With that kind of manpower, very little went unnoticed.
Hauptman Wiesler (Ulrich Muhe) works for the Stasi. As a Colonel, he is a trusted member of the secret police who has been a star student. His specialty is interrogation. Wiesler is convinced by his good friend and cultural minister Grubitz (Ulrich Tukur) to leave the classroom and head up a special project titled "Lazlo." Wiesler is tasked with spying on a playwright named Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) whose actress girlfriend Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck) is having a forced affair with Central Party Minister Bruno Hempf (Thomas Thieme). The entire operation is driven by political motives that skewer Wiesler's thinking, freeing him to engage in unorthodox activity.
The situation begins to unfold. Stuff rolls downhill and, in this case, Wiesler finds himself on the bottom. With the mission failing to provide the intended results and an additional plot going unthwarted, Wiesler becomes the subject of suspicion himself. His superior knows how cagey he is (not to make you groan...but he put the "cagey" in "KGB"). With little recourse, Wiesler finds himself cleaning up his own mess and awaiting the consequences. The consequences are less severe but subtly rewarding as we witness outcomes of the various characters following the removal of the Berlin Wall.
The Lives of Others contains a complex well-written plot that engages the audience. The run-time is nearly two and a half hours, but moves quickly with little sluggish pacing. The characters are definitively created with depth and clarity. The interactions between the characters had credibility and added tension to some of the scenes. The resolution at the end of the film was rewarding and only slightly predictable. The dialogue was fresh and interesting. Writer/Director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck created something very close to being a classic.
Muhe was convincingly eerie as the stoic hard-corps party interrogator. The role required some stretches for the actor, who deftly brought flesh to his character. The tension between his character and Tukur's showed credible signs of the stress caused by betrayal among close life-long friends. The two shared an amazing chemistry that added realism to the story. More betrayal was found in Gedeck's character, which seems to struggle with conflicting forces. Gedeck was enjoyable and convincing. Koch's character starts out seeming cocky but must win the audience over. Koch manages to connect with the audience to make them want his character to succeed. He does an excellent job of balancing the various aspects of his character without losing the audience. The Lives of Others was exceptionally well cast. It is loaded with characters who have conviction and passion and seem capable of walking off the screen into your living room.
The Lives of Others was given an R Rating by the MPAA for a couple of naked shower scenes that showed very little nudity and a couple of sex scenes, one with no nudity but a bit of forcefulness. There were several adult themes running through the film. There is a tragic death with a mild gore factor near the end of the film. As a whole, the artistic elements of this film and the tasteful nature of the questionable material causes me to apply a somewhat liberal consideration to the age range. I would think teenagers of any age could handle the steamy material for the sake of the important themes and exceptional cinematic qualities of this film. Run time is two hours, seventeen minutes.
The Lives of Others won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 2006. The award was well-deserved. I have watched several films that have won that award and have liked most, but some I have only liked moderately. This film was exceptional and comes highly recommended. The great acting, writing, cinematography and pacing make this slightly long film pass quickly. A long film that feels short is always an indication of excellence. That is the best word I can give this film. Excellence. 9/10.
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