The Lives of Others ****
Directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
Written by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
Ulrich Mühe as Gerd Wiesler
Ulrich Turkur as Grubitz
Sebastian Koch as Georg Dreyman
Martina Gedeck as Crista Maria Sieland
Thomas Thieme as Minister Bruno Hempf
137 Minutes(Rated R for some sexuality/nudity.)
Seeing "The Lives of Others" has changed my mind about what should win the Best Foreign Film Oscar. Since it was nominated in the category it was not yet released in the United States to the public, and before seeing it I was convinced that "Pan's Labyrinth" should be the winner. Now I'm not so sure, as "The Lives of Others" is easily more human, more emotional, and overall a better film. This could easily end up on my Top Ten at the end of the year. This is a history film, a human drama, a relationship story, and a story about a friendship that could have been-all tangled up into two and a half hours of constant tension, all without any blood, car chases, or action fight sequences, and it sucks the viewer into the story from the beginning. I did not take out my cell phone once to check the time, and when that happens it means there is something special happening on the screen.
"The Lives of Others" opens in 1984 in Berlin, Germany, a few years before the wall falls. We follow Gerd Wiesler, a respected, humorless and straightforward member of the Stasi. Wiesler is great at getting information from people, and teaches a class about how to catch if a person being questioned is lying or not. He comes up with the idea to monitor renowned playwright Georg Dreyman, as well as his girlfriend Crista Maria Sieland. Dreyman appears to be a good man, and he has never made a negative political statement about the GDR, but he is still suspected of leading a double life. And so Wiesler goes into their apartment when they leave and sticks wires all along the walls, under the paint and through the light switches, and begins his duty of listening to everything that happens in the house. Wiesler begins to follow their lives as if he was watching a television program-listening to their conversations, their love making, their arguments, etc. He learns that a high profile minister has his eye on Crista Maria, and would have her for himself if Dreyman wasn't around. She is very vulnerable. Eventually Wiesler stops listening to them, and decides to participant in things they do. He doesn't become obsessed with the couple, instead he gets a protective instinct to help them, as he tries to stop them from doing things that could get them into trouble, which is a constant jeopardy to his career.
"The Lives of Others" is a powerful character study of Wiesler, who is virtually in every scene even if it isn't a physical presence. When Dreyman and Sieland are having their conversations about themselves, art, literature, etc, we know that Wiesler is there the entire time. It isn't until about halfway through where we see that this observer and listener is becoming more human, and we only get examples of his humanity by the way he listens to them, and what he types on his massive report to the second man who comes in at nights to take over. Wiesler basically wants the type of relationship and lifestyle of the one he is hearing. He lives a life of solitude-going home to a standard little apartment, and only being with women who time he has to pay for. And while he is working he hears what is to him an ideal lifestyle. It has to be made clear that Wiesler isn't like Robin Williams in "One Hour Photo." He isn't obsessed with the couple-he doesn't create a shrine for them. He is more obsessed with protecting them, and allowing them to be with each other-something that he never experienced. And this transformation is a slow one, but is ultimately the core of the film.
I have only seen four of the foreign film nominees as "After the Wedding" isn't released here until the end of March, but it is clear which one I will be rooting for. If "Pan's Labyrinth" ends up winner, I will be happy-it was my number two of last year. But it is "The Lives of Others" that packs a more emotional punch, and tells a story that is full of more heart and develops it characters more than "Pan," which was phenomenal, but more of a visual masterpiece. This film is going strong in Europe, and it easily deserves all of the attention that it has been getting. Lastly, I'll mention the ending, or endings. At one point it may have seemed tedious. After the emotional climax we get 4 Years Later. . .and then two years later. . . and then two years later again. In the hands of a lesser film maker it may have seemed too extended, and it may have had the "Lord of the Rings' feel of too many endings. Instead each one had a part in the final ending, which will bring a smile to everyone's face. It is the only place to end this-a happy ending to a story that is very tragic, and one that is full of hope. "The Lives of Others" is the only film out there at the moment that is truly a must-see.