THE LIVES OF OTHERS (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, 2006)

Early 1980s; unawares, the German Democratic Republic is close to its end. Playwright Georg Dreyman is under surveillance; fastidious, by-the-book Stasi member Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe, in a beautifully controlled performance) becomes a captivated eavesdropper, as though Dreyman’s private life were another one of Dreyman’s plays. By degrees Weisler relaxes into Dreyman’s and his own humanity, even going so far as to falsify surveillance reports to cover up Dreyman’s anonymous authorship of a smuggled-out article on the high incidence of suicide in the GDR. After the Berlin Wall falls, Dreyman finds a way of paying tribute to the “good man” who forfeited his career by protecting him.
     Written and directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, Das Leben der Anderen is, despite its plethora of prizes (including the Oscar), sentimental drivel. Its premise is ridiculous: that such a soul as Wiesler would turn disloyal and (in Henckel von Donnersmarck’s view) become a mensch by “listening in” and reading a little Brecht. The film’s procedure is conventional, its material protracted, its coincidences and ironies heavy-handed. (Hounded by authorities, Dreyman’s actress-mistress adds herself to East German suicide statistics.) The film’s politics are dubious; the filmmaker is a former West German whose script is a tortured reaction to current widespread longing for the dismantled socialism among former East Germans in today’s reunified Germany. Henckel von Donnersmarck did spend a brief part of his childhood on the Eastern side of the Wall.
     The closing freeze frame is powerful; but like so much else in this film (including its repressed color scheme), even this is a cliché. The Lives of Others is nearly fifty years past François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959).
     Through its historical back door, the film does take good swipes at contemporary rights violations and uses of torture.
     One thing more: Mühe is a ringer for a younger Rudy Giuliani.

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