In 1984, five years before the advent of glasnost, the Germany that we know today was split into two halves - West Germany, a democratic country that was part of Europe, and the German Democrat Republic (GDR), a socialist country that was allied to the then Soviet Union. The two countries were divided by a wall that was erected in 1961 in Berlin. On November 9th 1989, the world for the people that lived in the eastern part of the city changed forever when the GDR government announced that they would no longer restrict movement between the east and the west. Thousands of people went to the wall and it was, in effect, torn down by the public.,
Before then, however, life was very different. The GDR secret police, known as stasi, ruled with a rod of iron. It was not uncommon for people to disappear for years at a time with no explanation - only to re-appear from no-where just as mysteriously.
To be honest, very little is really known about what went on “behind the iron curtain” during those dark days of the cold war. Modern cinema seems reluctant or even incapable of making movies depicting the truth of the ways of the stasi or the KGB. However, in 2006, that all changed...
The Lives Of Others (or Das Leben der Anderan to give it it's German title) dares go behind the Berlin wall in 1984 to tell the story of a corrupt party official and a stasi officer who has pity on his targets.
Stasi captain Gerd Weisler, played by the late Ulrich Muhe, is told to spy on Georg Dreyman, a play write who has ties to blacklisted people, who, Weisler is told, has sympathies with the west. Stasi agents enter Dreyman's apartment and bug the place with microphones in every room...Weisler and his sergeant, Udo, sit in the loft of the building listening to Weislers every move. However, Weisler has a girlfriend, Christa-Maria Seyland who has attracted the attention and affection of Minister Hempf, a member of the party's central committee. It was Hempf who tasked Weisler to spy on Dreyman in the first place, thinking that the stasi would find out adverse information and be able to imprison him, therefore giving him first dibs on his girlfriend. Unhappy that his target is for personal gain and not an enemy of the state, Weisler plots his revenge.
Weisler intervenes so that Dreyman will discover the relationship between his girlfriend and the minister and later meets her in a bar and convinces Christa-Marie that she doesn't need the minister. This works and Christa-Maria runs back to Georg, who takes her back with open arms.
Whilst Weisler is listening to the conversations taking place in Dreymans apartment, he is forced to listen to debates on social issues that he, as a stasi officer, had never considered before. He is soon breaking into Dreymans apartment, digging deeper into his life and at the same time, questioning his own socialist beliefs...
WOW! What a movie. At 138 minutes, it's not short. And with no grasp of the German language apart from being able to order two beers, the subtitles are an invaluable tool. There are sometimes two sets of subs on the screen at one time and I, on occasion, found it hard to keep up. But boy, did the time fly...
The story is built layer by layer, and with each layer comes another covering of tension. It's brilliantly acted. Those of you that are interested in world cinema may have come across the lead roles before. Sebastian Koch, who plays Georg Dreyman, was recently seen as General Ludwig Muntze in The Black Book. Ulrich Muhe was a very popular TV actor in Germany before his sudden death earlier this year. Martina Gedeck plays Christa-Maria and she was recently seen in an English speaking role in The Good Shephard
The feature is brilliantly directed by first time helmsman Florian Henckel Von Donnersmarck, who also wrote the screenplay.
The Lives Of Others won the Oscar in 2007 for best foreign language film. It has also won a host of other awards worldwide. Most critics praise the film for its spot on pacing, brilliant acting performances and level headed debut from its director. Whilst I second each one of the plaudits heaped upon it, I was also intrigued by the story. Having visited Berlin before the wall came down, I would often look across the wire at the people going about their everyday lives wondering if it really was that bad.
After watching The Lives Of Others, I'm really none the wiser - but my life is a lot fuller for having seen this film. It's a cracking piece of cinema and comes very highly recommended.
One word of caution before you click buy though. There are rumours of a Hollywood remake with either Anthony Minghella or Sydney Pollack at the helm. If reading rather than watching a film isn't your thing, or you have no interest in world cinema, then it may be a good idea to wait for this offering. Both are reputable directors with very creditable pedigrees. I'm not one for remakes for the sake of it, but I think this one might be worth waiting for...
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