The Lives of Others, written and directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, is one of the year’s best offerings. Germany’s foreign language entry for the Oscars, Lives is a love triangle, of sorts, only “love” takes on many different levels of meaning.
The film takes place in East Germany, before the fall of the Berlin Wall, when artists and writers were arrested, interrogated, threatened and jailed for expressing their thoughts, especially anything that could be construed as anti-Germany. It takes place in Germany but really, it could be anywhere. The idea here is that it is impossible to oppress and erase the truth; it always finds a way out. Information wants to be free.
In the film, Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) is a writer who, along with his actress girlfriend, Christa-Maria (Martina Gedeck) becomes entangled in a secret plot to release some anti-government material. At the same time, they are under surveillance by one of the more ruthless interrogators, Captain Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe).
In hopes of trapping Dreyman into betraying himself, they bug his apartment, setting up listening devices so they can hear every word. As the main listener, Gerd is slowly but surely moved by Dreyman and his lovely girlfriend. He begins to develop feelings for them, which it turn, leads to his wanting to protect them, so he is suddenly the sole perpetrator of a cover-up.
Is he in love with Christa-Maria? Does he want to be the writer? Either way, and little by little, his hard icy shell begins to melt and soon he is caught up in their drama. He does things so that their lives are improved; worse, he endangers his own job by protecting them. No one knows he is doing it, not the cops, not the couple, no one.
And how could he not fall for them? They have everything he doesn’t have: love, companionship, passion, artistic expression and even freedom. He is a disciplined officer but a deeply lonely and alone man. What little high he gets from his station in life cannot compete with what this little world he discovers gives him.
The Lives of Others is about the power and importance of art in our lives – why it’s important, why it matters and why it will find its way out no matter how hard others try to shut it down.
It could be looked upon as an anti-communist film, or it could have broader meaning, reaching all the way to the United States, where not too long ago a terrorist attack threatened our own freedom of speech.
The film feels a bit long at times because it doesn’t rush the story. It makes sure that every character’s story is told. But it doesn’t matter how long it is or how slow it is, the longer it takes to get to the ending the more powerful the ending becomes.
Anchored by a brilliant performance by Muhe, The Lives of Others is so good, in fact, it almost seems like it was made at a time when directors made better movies. It is reminiscent of Ingmar Bergman, how the writer meditates on love, politics and art.
The Lives of Others opens next week in limited release.