It’s a topic so rarely touched upon in cinema that, until now, I’d only ever heard of one other film that covered it; what it was like to live in the oppressive regime of Cold-War-era East Germany. So far, the list has given me Good Bye Lenin, which I thoroughly enjoyed, and now, we have The Lives of Others, the dramatic flip side to the comedy half of Good Bye Lenin’s narrative coin. This is apparently the debut feature film for director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, who has probably the most German-sounding name in cinematic history. The silliness of the name aside, Donnersmarck must have had a hell of a list of credentials, as this is definitely one of the finest cinematic accomplishments I’ve seen from a first-time director.
Wiesler is an officer in the Stasi, the East German Secret Service, tasked with the subjugation and surveillance of the people under their watch. Wiesler in particular is very good at his job, knowing how to stress out subjects in interrogations and when and how to glean information from the nonverbal cues they give. As such, he is the first person on his higher-up’s list to be assigned to a fresh case; the surveillance of playwright Georg Dreyman. It soon is made apparent to him, however, that Dreyman is only under surveillance because one of Weisler’s superiors has eyes for Dreyman’s actress girlfriend, and it is this disgust with the purpose of his own job, coupled with an unfamiliar sense of camaraderie with the playwright, that causes him to question his purpose within the organization, all while he also begins to blur the line between third-party observer and willing participant in the events and people he is surveilling. First off, hats off to Donnersmarck and the production team for this one; this was by and large one of the most exquisitely crafted films I’ve seen in a good long while. The production values were excellent, and channeled through the camera lens to create quite the visual aesthetic; looking back on it, I could easily remark that The Lives of Others is cinematic poetry on screen. The acting was superb, the script even better, and even though the film was over two hours long, not a frame felt out of place or unnecessarily added. The plot was a subdued one, but it had every right to be, and even though many have brought up qualms about making the Stasi surveillance man out to be a sympathetic hero, I found no such qualms myself, and was gladly able to empathize with Wiesler and even smile approvingly at his character’s transformation.
This ended up winning the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, over even Pan’s Labyrinth, which some would decry. Me, I can totally see how this won, and after watching it, I’m completely fine with it winning; this is really that good a film. It’s not the type of really good cinema to smack you upside the head with how unbelievably amazing it is; this is a slow burn, able to worm its way under your skin in such a way that you are more than happy to let it do so. Donnersmarck would go on to direct the laughably-misadvertised Johnny Depp/Angelina Jolie film The Tourist, which is a shame, since his debut feature here is by far one of the most promising first films I think I’ve ever seen. This is definitely one to watch at some point; make the time to do so.
Arbitrary Rating: 9/10