Let’s get the question out of the way at the onset, at least it’s the question I keep being asked: Do I think that Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s The Lives of Others is a better film than Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth? In other words, do I think it deserved the Oscar it beat out Pan for? No, not even close. As filmmaking, I not only find it of less note than Pan, but of less note than Pedro Almodóvar’s Volver, which wasn’t even nominated.
In Pan del Toro created an entire work of art and a complete universe in a way very few filmmakers have ever done. Donnersmarck, on the other hand, crafted a very good drama with a good deal of subtle complexity that feels more like the work of a writer who also directs, than the work of a full-blown filmmaker. The material may be very fine, but it’s really rather ordinary filmmaking. I do, however, see that it’s a much more likely film to win an Oscar, not in the least because Academy voters automatically equate a deliberately paced (that’s critic speak for slow moving) film with importance. Now, having said all that, I’ll add that the two films are so different that comparisons are impossible—except for the Oscar question.
On its own merits The Lives of Others has much to recommend it, though I freely confess I didn’t find it nearly as tense as most people seem to have, and I found the first section of the movie very slow indeed—the kind of slowness that lingered with me after the film actually captured my interest and involvement. That suggests to me that I never felt the latter part of the film truly justified quite so methodical a buildup. However, it is a film very worth seeing for a variety of reasons.
The plot, though fueled by Soviet-era corruption and paranoia (it’s set in East Germany in 1984), is startlingly relevant today, since a land in which the government was free to spy on anyone and everyone without the slightest provocation no longer appears to be the exclusive province of “the bad guys.” The film never stresses this, but the connections to a growing police-state mentality is kind of hard to ignore. Interestingly—and I think this is in the film’s favor—it’s less about that than about the redemptive power of art and human interaction.
The story follows hardcore East German secret police Captain Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Muhe), who believes that the actions of the totalitarian state he serves are invariably justifiable and humane—even if they require a certain degree of torture. (The logic is that to question the results this produces would in itself be a crime against the state.) His cold, pseudo-logical world, however, starts to unravel when he’s ordered to spy on possibly subversive dramatist Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch).
The problem Wiesler encounters is multi-fold. In part, it comes from the inescapable fact that Dreyman isn’t really suspected of anything, but that a government minister, Bruno Hempf (Thomas Thieme), is in love with the same woman as Dreyman, actress Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck, Mostly Martha), and Hempf wants the man found guilty of something to get him out of the picture. Wiesel’s superior makes it clear that he needs to find something whether it exists or not. But more, the closed-off Wiesel finds himself drawn further and further into the life and the art—and the appreciation of art—of his quarry. This finds its most compelling expression in a scene where Dreyman plays “Sonata for a Good Man” (composed for the film by Gabriel Yared) in honor of a blacklisted director friend who committed suicide. Not only does the music visibly effect Wiesel, so do Dreyman’s words, “Can anyone who has heard this music—truly heard it—really be a bad person?” While that sounds a little too simplistic (is art alone that completely redemptive?), the film establishes the fact that Wiesel never was a bad person. The moment is not only a turning point for Wiesel, but in a different sense for Dreyman, who starts becoming the dissident Minister Hempf hoped he was. The question then becomes one of whether Wiesel can bring himself to report on this man, and therein lies the film’s ultimate drama.
Good drama it is, and it’s drama that raises a lot of questions, but as I said, I found it less tense than many, simply because everyone pretty much completely did what I expected them to do. This, however, doesn’t diminish the drama itself, or the quality of the film, which is considerable. Rated R for some sexuality/nudity.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke