The Lives Of Others
(12A) 138 mins
The masterful debut feature of writer-director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, The Lives of Others is the first major German film to examine the activities of the Stasi in the former East Germany. Where the likes of Wolfgang Becker’s Good Bye Lenin! drew on a curiously rose-tinted nostalgia for life under a Communist dictatorship, von Donnersmarck’s suspenseful and poignant thriller reveals the chilling realities of daily existence under a totalitarian system, in which 100,000 secret service officers and 200,000 informants helped control the population.
It’s a measure of von Donnersmarck’s confidence in his storytelling that the central character, Stasi agent Captain Wiesler (Ulrich Muhe), whom we first meet relentlessly interrogating a suspect in a East Berlin detention centre in 1984, is a far from sympathetic individual. Apparently without family or friends, and devoted to his work as the ‘sword and shield’ of the party, he seems drained of human emotions. Asked to conduct a surveillance operation by his superior Grubitz (Ulrich Tukur), Wiesler finds himself spying on successful playwright George Dreyman (Sebastian Koch), and his stage actress girlfriend (Martina Gedeck).
An atmosphere of fear and suspicion pervades this superbly acted work, reflected in the way bright colours have been eliminated from its palette: this is a world of metallic greys, sickly greens and oppressive beiges. What makes the drama here so absorbing is that the protagonists, torn between principles and feelings, face such difficult human dilemmas.