Wednesday, April 11, 2007


THE LIVES OF OTHERS is a technically accomplished, well-acted thriller set in the Communist East Germany of the early 1980s. It is a world where the avowed mission of the state is, simply, to know everything, and where the ability of an artist to perform is governed by his or her willingness to please the State and its high-ranking officials. In this world, an oleaginous Minister is eager to bed a famous actress called Christa. In order to clear away her lover - a dramatist and loyal Party man called Georg - the Minister orders a 24 hour surveillance operation that will obligingly turn up something incriminating.

The set-up is dealt with quickly. As is the redemption of a loyal Stasi spy named Wiesler who is running the investigation. We are meant to believe that a man so imbued with the Party line - whose life is enmeshed in the State - would become the stalked couple's protector upon hearing a piece of classical music. In short, that good art can change a man - and that each man has the innate capacity to change for the better. After that event - marked by a melodramatic tear trickling down Wiesler's cheek around forty-five minutes into this two and half hour film, the movie is all police procedural with a little how-dunnit thrown in to string out the run-time into a mawkish 1990s reunion.

Some critics have knocked the writer-director for training his eye on the one Good Stasi operative, so giving a misleading impression of the horrors of the DDR. In their eyes, THE LIVES OF OTHERS is like the SCHINDLER'S LIST of post-war German film. Like them, my sensibility errs toward the grim majority case rather than to the optimistic exception. Nonetheless, an artist is free to tell the story he chooses - we can only judge him on the results. And, from an early conversation in the film, I conclude that the director specifically wants to make the point that while the Communist functionaries are cynical and believe in humanity's greed, the artists believe in humanity's capacity for good and for change and they ultimately triumph. The director of this film is then, by his hand, charged with making us believe this to be true.

Sadly, I found the prompts for Wiesler's change of heart rather glib. So that, despite an outstanding score, great acting and visual style, THE LIVES OF OTHERS was, for me, over-long and pat.

THE LIVES OF OTHERS played Toronto and London 2006, where it won the Satyajit Ray Award for best debut feature. This was presented to the director by Sir Richard Attenborough earlier tonight. The movie also won the Best Foreign Language Oscar, 2006. The film was released in Germany, Austria, Denmark, Finland and Sweden last year. It opened in the Czech Republic, Poland, Belgium, France, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Portugal, the US, Japan, Israel, Spain, the Netherlands, Singapore, Thailand, Turkey, Mexico, Slovakia and South Korea earlier this year. It is currently showing in Australia, Slovenia and Italy and opens on the UK on April 13th. It opens in Argentina on April 19th and in Iceland on May 4th 2007.

*Plot spoiler - moreover, why didn't the editor of Spiegel simply smuggle the typewriter out with him after the article had been written. It would have been risky, sure, but not more so than smuggling it in and infinitely less risky than leaving it in Dreyman's apartment.

1 comment:

  1. I just saw this movie the other day. I found it very powerful.

    I didn't think it was the music per se that changed the Stasi man's mind. The music was the culmination of the Stasi man actually having been persuaded by the writers and artists he had been spying on. He had not just listened to them, he had heard what they said. So, in that wider sense, yes, the movie makes the case that writers and artists can make a difference. The Party obviously believed the same, otherwise they wouldn't bug these people in the first place!

    Also, I don't think that Georg was a "loyal party man." He disagreed with the regime, but he wasn't sure that fleeing was the best way to oppose it or change it.