New York Magazine


The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen)
  Release Date: 02/09/07

Starring: Martina Gedeck, Ulrich Mühe, Sebastian Koch, Ulrich Tukur, Thomas Thieme

Director: Florian Henckel-Donnersmarck

Rating: (R)
  Running Time
  137 min
  Sony Pictures Classics
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As Gerd Wiesler, a masterful interrogator in the East German secret police (the "Stasi") and the fulcrum of the fraught melodrama The Lives of Others, Ulrich Mühe gives a marvelously self-contained performance. There isn't an ounce of fat on his body, or in his acting: He has pared himself down to a pair of eyes that prowl the faces of his character's countrymen for signs of arrogance—i.e., of independent thinking. But if Wiesler has shed all traces of nonessential humanity, he has just enough empathy to burrow into his prisoners' heads and reduce them, over time, to cringing wrecks. Belief in the mission of the German Democratic Republic—and the resourcefulness of its enemies—keeps him patient and centered in his labors. It hardly seems to matter that his most intimate exchanges are with the people whose lives he destroys. Until now.

The first film by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, The Lives of Others is a cunning piece of construction—a Kafkaesque tearjerker, a tragic farce. Set in the mid-eighties, before Gorby and glasnost, the movie centers on Wiesler's surveillance of a pair of national celebrities, the playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch)—the only "nonsubversive [GDR] writer still read in the West," we're told—and his actress girlfriend, Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck). It's Wiesler who proposes that surveillance—he doesn't like Dreyman's haughty expression at the opening of his latest play. But when this loyal Stasi officer discovers that the operation was fast-tracked because the odious minister of Culture (Thomas Thieme) wants sole possession of the comely Christa-Maria, his moral compass begins to wander. As he eavesdrops in the dark attic above the couple's apartment, he's slowly drawn out of himself and into the lives of others.

Movies can appeal to our best and worst instincts—it's when they appeal to both at once that they get really interesting. We fear for the freedom of the vulnerable couple, yet on some level it's a kick to spy on them along with Wiesler—to listen in on mundane conversations in a culture in which there's no sphere of privacy, and to think, What stray complaint can be used as proof of disloyalty? There are so many from which to choose! We root for Wiesler's conscience to thaw, yet the movie's cruelest irony is that whenever he manages to do something decent, it always rebounds on the people he seeks to protect. In a system that perverts the most ordinary interactions, few good deeds go unpunished.

Christa-Maria is dealt the worst hand: Her stage career could end abruptly if she doesn't put out for the cultural commissar. Gedeck, the winsome star of Mostly Martha, takes the actress's indecisiveness to operatic heights—but does her defiler have to be this repulsive? When she allows him to paw her in a limo, the scene is like something out of a Victorian melodrama. (The director could have suggested that power has its attractions: How else to account for all the women that Henry Kissinger got?) —Reviewed by David Edelstein, New York Magazine