Monday, July 27, 2009

Day 191: The Lives of Others (2006) - Rank 5/5


It must have really sucked to have lived East Germany during the era of the GDR, is all I can say. Director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck creates an atmosphere of fear for government officials very early in the film and it only increases in intensity as the plot thickens. The manner in which it is done is as subtle as a teacher putting a check mark next to the name of a student who questions whether tortuous interrogation is really necessary, or as tactless as an apartment torn asunder by a gang of Stasi thugs. This environment only enhances the sense of risk behind the actions that Gerd Weisler, a Stasi spy, carries out.

Weisler is put in charge of spying on playwright Georg Dreyman by the Hempf, the minister of culture. Hempf suspects that Dreyman harbors sympathy for the West and wants Weisler to expose Dreyman for the traitor he is. Weisler is assigned to the job because he's good...too good, in fact, for he quickly learns that Hempf is motivated by lust. He craves Dreyman's girlfriend and actress, Christa-Maria, and he's using his office and position of power to get an innocent man put into jail, eliminating the competition. But soon, Dreyman becomes moved by the suicide of a close friend to produce anti-party literature. Weisler, disillusioned by the corruption of his office, begins covering for the couple that's he's become attached to, merely by listening to their conversations and love-making, but the further Dreyman goes, the more at risk Weisler is at his "help" being exposed and ending up in jail with Dreyman.

The story feels positively Hitchcockian at times, with elegant twists of coincidence and a strange, voyeuristic attachment to a situation that feels reminiscent of "Rear Window." With such a heavy-handed plot, it would be easy to leave the audience feeling utterly bleak afterward, and it would be cheating to provide a chipper, cop out ending that would leave folks upbeat. Donnersmarck finds the perfect harmony between the two delivering a lesson in compassion over blind dedication, making it a masterpiece of altruism.

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