Monday, November 23, 2009

2006: The Lives of Others (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck)

Released: March 23, 2006 (Germany)

a.k.a.: Das Leben der Anderen

Director: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck; Screenplay: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck; Cinematography: Hagen Bogdanski; Studio: Beuna Vista International; Producers: Max Wiedemann, Quirin Berg, and Dirk Hamm

Cast: Ulrich Mühe (Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler), Martina Gedeck (Christa-Maria Sieland), Sebastian Koch (Georg Dreyman), Ulrich Tukur (Oberstleutnant Anton Grubitz), Thomas Thieme (Minister Bruno Hempf), Hans-Uwe Bauer (Paul Hauser), Volkmar Kleinert (Albert Jerska), Matthias Brenner (Karl Wallner)

For the second time in three years, I turn to Germany for my top film. Not since the first two years of the countdown (all the way back in May!), when I chose The Blue Angel and M for 1930 and ’31, have films from Deutschland popped up so close together. Oddly enough, both of these films from the current decade deal with dark periods in German history. As was covered in the review of Downfall, the final days of Hitler’s Third Reich are played out at a frenetic, almost real-time pace in Oliver Hirschbiegel’s stellar work. The formula for writer-director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s debut film is quite different. Rather than bombarding the viewer with the immediacy of a dire situation, he crafts a story that slowly builds tension, creeping up on climaxes that are bubbling over with anxiety.

The setting is East Germany in 1984, a time when socialists still ruled the nation, but when protesters and intellectuals are routinely speaking out against the repressive regime. Maintaining control of the ruling elite is the secret police of the East German state, the dreaded Ministry for State Security, or “Stasi.” This is an organization that specialized in covert operations utilized to spy on and uncover enemies of the state. The extent of the operations of the organization is staggering even now – 68,000 full-time employees, as well as utilizing nearly 300,000 part-time workers and operatives over the course of its existence. In addition, the Stasi cultivated an army of informants to clandestinely report on the activities of neighbors, co-workers, relatives, and anyone else that could be under scrutiny as a “class enemy.”

One of the Stasi’s most successful employees is Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe), an expert in the disciplines of interrogations and covert intelligence gathering. So efficient is Wiesler that he is in charge of instructing new recruits at the Stasi academy in the art of extracting confessions from suspects. The methods used to obtain such confessions – sleep deprivation, constant questioning, threats toward family members – would make the admissions dubious to most impartial observers, but Wiesler views them as foolproof tactics. A former classmate and current superior of Wiesler, Lt. Col. Anton Grubitz (Ulrich Tukur) comes to Wiesler in order to initiate surveillance on the most successful playwright in East Germany, Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch). On the surface, Dreyman looks like a loyal socialist, but party higher-ups begin to suspect that he, like many other artists, may secretly harbor anti-GRD feelings. Thus, Grubitz and Party Minister Bruno Hempf (Thomas Thieme) decide that he needs to be placed under surveillance. Grubitz approaches Wiesler, having him set up the operation.

Wiesler wires Dreyman’s apartment and constructs a control room on the top floor. As he spies on them, the reasoning for putting Dreyman under surveillance slowly begins to emerge. When Wiesler spots Dreyman’s girlfriend Christa-Maria (Martina Gedeck) with Minister Hempf, he begins to understand the goal of the operation is not preserving the security of the state. Over the course of his work, Wiesler gradually begins to relate to Dreyman and Christa-Maria. Almost as if he is living vicariously through the couple, Wiesler’s commitment to the cause begins to wane. Taking chances that he would not normally have considered, Wiesler actually begins to leave out key information from the reports that he submits to Grubitz. The result is that no incriminating evidence is found against Dreyman, which infuriates Hempf.

Part of the true reason that no incriminating evidence is found to smear Dreyman is that initially he is not actually a subversive. Although many of his peers in the theater world are dissidents, Dreyman is almost apolitical. If he is not an outright supporter of the GDR, then he at least is someone who has made peace with the way the system is. While Wiesler is undoubtedly the main character of the film, the most interesting aspect of the story to me is the development of Dreyman. When he is put under surveillance, it becomes obvious that he has no desire to be a part of the resistance. His only goal is to be able to continue to be able to write, which is guaranteed by staying out of the rough and tumble business of politics in the GDR. It is only once surveillance has begun on him that he even slightly ventures into publishing something political.

I am not going to go much further in terms of plot, because although I’m guessing that a lot of folks have seen this, but it’s one that needs to be experienced with at least some degree of freshness the first time around. So, to those who still haven’t had the pleasure, I won’t reveal too much. I do, though, want to comment on the conclusion and say that I love it. Rather than wrapping things up with the most obvious, pat ending that anyone could see coming, von Donnersmarck keeps it understated. It's feel good not in an overly sentimental kind of way, but rather very modestly. I hate to sound schmaltzy myself, but this is a movie that gives a reassuring assessment of the ability of one person to decide to do the right thing, regardless of the outside pressure.

The performances are all around solid. Mühe as Wiesler is the prototypical dedicated, methodical bureaucrat. Koch plays Dreyman as the writer who will do anything for his art. The best performance probably comes from Tukur as Anton Grubitz, a man who fashions himself as dedicated to the tenets of the state, but who’s only true ambition is personal career advancement. The true star of the entire film is von Donnersmarck. The script which he penned is tight, using very deliberate pacing and style to make the climaxes unbelievably thrilling. Long sections of the film will seem to repeat snippets of dialogue and situations, but they only lull the viewer into a sense of familiarity that is quickly shattered when tension-filled scenes pop up. As a director making his debut, von Donnersmarck also displays incredible control. While not exactly the most scientific scale to judge such things, the movie looks exactly as a westerner like myself has been led to believe cities behind the Iron Curtain would look. Everything is drab and dull, with each building looking exactly like the next. The coloring of the sets and scenery is equally bland, creating an air of monotony that accentuates the pacing of the story.

Perhaps part of me being drawn to this film is that I see a lot of elements from other all-time favorites. Every time that I watch it, I am reminded of a classic like Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist, another tale of a man becoming disillusioned in an authoritarian state. It’s also impossible not to relate it to one of Francis Ford Coppola’s finest, The Conversation, which touches on the way that surveillance can affect both the watcher and the watched. I don’t think that The Lives of Others is quite at the same level as these two films, but few are. It is an amazing achievement as a debut film and one that is poignant enough to stay with you well after you finish it.

Rating: 9/10

Other Contenders for 2006: I came very, very close to going with Paul Greengrass’ United 93. I think it’s a remarkable achievement, and one which I originally questioned coming so soon after September 11. But it’s handled well and the intensity that is able to be created in another real-time like production is impressive. Clint Eastwood also released one excellent and one OK film in 2006. Screenwriter Paul “I have a message and I’m going to pound it into your head” Haggis gets into the way too much in Flags of Our Fathers. Letters from Iwo Jima is certainly the superior of the two and ranks high on any Eastwood list. I am happy that The Departed finally got Marty Scorsese his long-deserved Oscars, but it’s a movie that I seem to like less the more that I watch it. I still like it, but where I once felt it to be among Scorsese’s best, I no longer think that is the case. Still, it remains a top film for 2006. A movie from this year that continues to keep me puzzled is Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain. It might be one of the best movies I’ve seen or it might be a dud – and I honestly can’t decide which one I feel is the case! It’s one that I probably need to continue to revisit. Others I have to acknowledge: Apocalypto (Mel Gibson), Pan’s Labyrinth (Guillermo del Toro), Blood Diamond (Edward Zwick), and Inside Man (Spike Lee).


  1. This is a stunnning film. I can't believe it's the director's first. Works on so many levels - even religious (The movie compares Wiesler to The Christ, but he is also like a padre in a confessional chamber). Superb review Dave. You strikignly mention that Dreyman wants to just finish his work. I am reminded of The Pianist in some ways now. Yes, THe Conversation is the movie that first comes to mind.

    My picks:
    Babel (Inarittu)
    Casino Royale (Campbell)
    Children Of Men (Cuaron)
    Letters From Iwo Jima (Eastwood)
    Curious George (O'Callaghan)
    The Departed (Scorsese)
    V For Vendetta (McTeigue)
    10 Questions For The Dalai Lama (Ray)
    12:08 East of Bucharest (Porumboiu)
    The Lives Of Others (Donnersmarck)
    After the Wedding (Bier)
    Pan's Labyrinth (Del Toro)
    Offside (Panahi)
    Roads Of Kiarostami (Kiarostami)
    The Fall (Tarsem)
    The Wind That Shakes The Barley (Loach)
    Vanaja (Domalpalli)
    Marcello, A Sweet Life (Canale, Morri)
    Volver (Almodovar)
    Rescue Dawn (Herzog)
    Syndromes And A Century (Weerasethakul)
    The Black Book (Verhoeven)
    Grave Decisions (Rosenmuller)

  2. Indeed Dave, the film does recall both THE CONVERSATION and THE CONFORMIST and it's one of the few bonafide contermporary masterpieces, that is certainly a superlative choice for the best of this year. I've seen it multiple times, and have promoted it with many, and it holds the stage on repeated viewing most compellingly. My own #1 choice, however, mentioned by you in your runner-up section is a metaphysical, metaphorical study of mortality that contends for best film of the decade. And Eastwoods LETTERS is a staggering achievement too, perhaps his greatest film. Lynch's INLAND EMPIRE is yet another masterpiece, as is Cuaron's CHILDREN OF MEN. I've always had problems with PAN'S LABYRINTH, even if some of it is beautiful. ONCE, which some will say is 2007, is an inspiring, truly great musical film. I also stand behind DREAMGIRLS and THE DEPARTED.

    My Own #1 Film of 2006:

    The Fountain (Aronofsky; USA)


    The Lives of Others (Von Donnersmarck; Germany)
    Once (Carney; Ireland)
    Letters From Iwo Jima (Eastwood; USA)
    Inland Empire (Lynch; USA)
    Children of Men (Cuaron; UK; USA)
    Dreamgirls (Condon; USA)
    The Departed (Scorsese; USA)
    Babel (Innaritu; USA; Mexico)
    I Don't Want to Sleep Alone (Ming Liang; Hong Kong)
    United 93 (Greengrass; UK; USA)
    This is England (Meadown; UK)
    The Wind That Shakes the Barley (Loach; Ireland)
    Still Life (Ke Jia; Hong Kong)
    Syndromes and a Century (Weerasethakul; Thailand)
    The Prestige (Nolan; USA)
    Volver (Almodovar; Spain)
    Private Fears in Private Places (Resnais; France)
    The Queen (Frears; UK)
    Little Children (Field; USA)
    Reprise (Trier; Norway)
    Little Miss Sunshine (Dayton/Faris; USA)
    I Served the King of England (Menzel; Czechoslovakia)
    Iran in Fragments (Langley; USA)
    Rescue Dawn (Herzog; USA)

    Tremendous, tremendous essay on LIVES.

  3. Dave – I feel so inadequate (ha!). Yet another selection of yours I have not seen. Your essay is superb, and as admirer of The Conversation, which you compare this to, I am sure I need to watch and will admire.

    One of the things I love about reading your blog, WitD’s and others is that I get to here about films that I am unaware of and hearing it from knowledgeable film lovers.

    My own selection is the combined effort of Clint Eastwood’s two films “Flags of our Fathers/Letters from Iwo Jima.” Stand alone, “Letters from Iwo Jima” is the better film but to me these two films are bookends and belong together. I also thought Scorsese’s “The Departed” is one of his best films and would have to say it was nest in line.

    The Departed
    The Black Book
    Letters from Iwo Jima
    Flags of our Fathers
    Away From Her
    Casino Royale
    For Your Consideration
    Notes on a Scandal
    The Queen
    Sherry Baby
    The Prestige
    Little Miss Sunshine
    Rescue Dawn

  4. Glad to see this movie is ranked high by JAFB and Sam.

    JAFB - I hadn't considered the religious angle, but that's an interesting point. I'll have to keep that in mind the next time I watch it.

    Sam - I own The Fountain, so it's one I can revisit whenever I have the urge. I'm still not sure what to make of it.

    John - I know that you are a fan of both The Conformist and The Conversation, so I think it's very likely that you would appreciate The Lives of Others too.

  5. Dave, permit me to take what will probably be a minority viewpoint: Flags Of Our Fathers is not only the better of Eastwood's Iwo Jima films, but the best film of 2006. While Letters is really a rather conventional portrait of doomed heroism that gets extra credit for Eastwood's chivalry toward the former enemy, Flags is a nearly nightmarish account of the permanent scars left by war and a breathtaking act of irreverence toward "the Good War" and "the Greatest Generation." The least linear of Eastwood's movies, it also denies closure in a crucial respect: we never see the battle end. The cumulative effect of all the time shifts is to show that, for the three protagonists, the battle never really ended. Eastwood also does great stuff with the battle scenes. There's an especially good sequence in which he follows a rapid-fire montage of men being shot and blown up with a long, tense tracking shot of medics bearing a stretcher down a hill. For what seems a very long time you expect to see them hit. When they aren't, it's a moment of relief that allows the story to resume. Overall, I think the Iwo Jima diptych is one of the great anti-war productions, but as a movie Flags is on a higher level.

    It had to be to beat Lives of Others. I remember being bugged when the German film beat Pan's Labyrinth for the Foreign Film Oscar, and then I saw it at the local art house. It is a great film, and you forgot to mention that it has one of the greatest closing lines in all cinema.

    Looking at other people's lists I'm reminded that 2006 and the following year are really the peak of the decade. Here's my own top ten:

    1. Flags of Our Fathers
    2. The Lives of Others
    3. Children of Men
    4. Offside
    5. The Prestige
    6. Pan's Labyrinth
    7. Letters from Iwo Jima
    8. Rescue Dawn
    9. The Queen
    10.Men at Work (Mani Haghighi)

  6. Samuel, you and I are usually of the same level, but LETTERS towers over FLAGS, a position which nearly every position has rightly taken. LETTERS won numerous critics' organization awards as Best Film of the year, while FLAGS floundered with mixed reviews. LETTERS is an overwhelming emotion powerhouse of a film, while FLAGS lamentably, was emotionally distancing and maddeningly episodic, in thde worst sense. You make a superb case to back up your position, and I respect it as I do all your insightful conclusions, but LETTERS is Eastwood's greatest film, and one that has rightly earned it's near-unanimous and delirious critical acclaim. FLAGS always leaves me unmoved, sad to say, and that's the major reason why we go to the movies.

  7. meant to say "every critic".

  8. Sam, I'll agree somewhat about the "delirious" acclaim received by Letters From Iwo Jima, since apart from the gore effects it isn't exactly an advance on All Quiet On the Western Front in the let's-see-war-from-the-enemy's-side genre. It even has a counterpart to that otherwise-classic film's horrid monologue of Lew Ayres to the dead Raymond Griffith in the form of the mawkish reading of the dead GI's letter. Letters is a very well done example of that genre and Ken Watanabe gave a great performance, but for me it pales in comparison with Flags' iconoclastic ambition. We do go to movies to be moved, but we are all moved in different ways by different experiences. I know I'm in the minority but Flags moved me more.

    BTW, I'm intrigued by your own choice of The Fountain. I was impressed by that film without fully comprehending it, but I'd probably include it in a Top 20 for 2007. Perhaps you'll agree that better was to come from Aronofsky very shortly.

  9. Well, to be honest,I was a bit surprised when Pan's Labyrinth, one of the best movies of the decade for me, lost out the Foreign Film Oscar to The Lives of Others, which I hadn't watched till then. I was really mad at the Oscar's voters. And that in a way propelled me to watch this German movie which, as you've pointed out, reminded me, too, quite heavily of Coppola's little seen masterpiece The Conversation. So, in a way, I guess thanks are due to the Oscars that I watched the movie.

    All said and done, I'd still choose Pan's Labyrinth as the best movie for the year. It was just incredible and exhilarating filmmaking for me. But comparisons apart, Lives of Others too was a wonderful piece of work. A quiet, meditative movie, whose deceptively calm exterior seemed almost like the lull before a storm. As you've brought forth in your review, it works on many levels. And yeah, the performances of the 3 lead actors were just superb.

  10. Samuel I loved that Ayes reading, so therein lies the root of the disent! Ha!

    No, THE WRESTLER for me comes nowhere near THEFOUNTAIN. I liked it well enough, but it didn't make my Top 10. But it has many admieres and I fully respect your position. For me THE FOUNTAIN ranks among the greatest films of the 2000's along with:

    Far From Heaven
    Son Frere
    The New World
    The Return of the King
    Talk To Her
    Eternal Sunshine of the Sptless Mind
    Dancer in the Dark
    The Lives of Others
    Devils on the Doostep
    Letters From Iwo Jima
    The Hours

    (list in no particular order as of yet)

    and a number of others, including yet to be determined 2009 films. I'm jumping the gun here! I know.

  11. I thought Eastwood got three great performances from the two films, Ken Watnabe and Kazunari Ninomiya were extremely moving in Letters as was Adam Beach as Ira Hayes in Flags.

  12. Excellent comments, everyone. That is funny that Samuel and Shubhajit both had the same urge to see this one because they were upset that it got the Oscar nod over Pan's Labyrinth! (LOL)

    Samuel - I didn't mean to make it sound like I dislike Flags, because when it's good it is outstanding. But I do think that Letters is the better film.

    Sam - I'll concur with your point, but disagree that Letters is Eastwood's #1 film. I'll refer you to 1992 in this countdown! :)

  13. I am extremely firm in my belief that the Departed is the finest movie of 2006. Obviously, Marty's oscar has been long-deserved and the constant snubbing of his films in favor of far inferior ones (here's looking at you, Mr. Costner)is one of the biggest injustices in Academy history. However, I feel that the Departed is not exactly an apology oscar (like, say, Russel Crowe's best actor win for Gladiator) so much as it is a genuinely deserved one. It's excellently-acted, brilliantly shot, thematically rich and intriguing, and, of course, glouriously entertaining and packing quite a visceral emotional impact. I mean, think of Billy Costigan's death- it's unsentimental and it's harsh, and yet it is far more emotionally affecting than exceedingly exaggerated and overly-dramatized deaths. That's my opinion, at least.

    Now, that's it for the Departed rant. Aside from that, I think 2006 was a very good year. The Queen comes to mind as a contender for the top spot, as are United 93 and Pan's Labyrinth. I didn't watch the Lives of Other, but I plan to. Children of Men is perhaps the best post-apocalyptic film of the 21st century thus far. And for sheer popcorn fun value, you have Casino Royale, my personal favorite Bond film of all time. And, I almost forgot, Borat, an uproariously amusing and even thought-provoking film.

  14. Oddly enough, a few months ago I went on a random German cinema spree, including several recent German films - and even more oddly, this (probably the most acclaimed German film of the decade!) was not one of them. The enticing Gedeck was in several of them, however.

    My #1 film for 2006 would be the groundbreaking Iraq in Fragments.

  15. Yet again, must admit I haven't seen this yet, though this time I do own a copy and hope to get to it soon and will then return and read your review again. I also haven't seen the two Eastwoods, but they are on TV here next week - in fact, Dave, have you been organising the UK TV listings? Loads of satellite stations here seem to be full of films you have chosen or recommended - though I really need the time to watch them all! Lol.

    I've delayed in responding to this because I've been trying to work out which is my favourite from 2006, but have come to the conclusion I don't have one film which stands out for me from this year - however I do really like all of these:

    The Departed (Scorsese)
    The History Boys (Hytner)
    Children of Men (Cuaron)
    Little Miss Sunshine (Dayton/Faris)
    Pan's Labyrinth (del Toro)
    The Last King of Scotland (Macdonald)
    A Scanner Darkly (Linklater)
    Volver (Almodóvar)
    The Namesake (Nair)