Das Leben der Anderen
starring Martina Gedeck, Ulrich Mühe, Sebastian Koch, Ulrich Tukur
written and directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
by Walter Chaw Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck makes his hyphenate debut with The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen), a picture revolving around the days leading up to and immediately following the fall of the Berlin Wall as experienced by prominent playwright Dreyman (Sebastian Koch), his actress girlfriend Christa (Martina Gedeck), and the Stasi investigator Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe) assigned to listen in on their conversations for evidence of dissent. The premise--monster grows a soul in the presence of humanity--is tired, but the execution is solid and smart from script to performance, replacing sentimentality and cliché with keen observations and long, wordless passages in which Wiesler moves through his victims' empty apartment before returning to his own with a hooker for desperate, lonesome encounters. The separation between East and West (and, fascinatingly, between the artist and the audience), then, transcends the ideological and becomes a story about isolation and voyeurism. The Lives of Others pulls off the neat trick of being truthful without being meticulous, and of universalizing a very particular place and time by creating three-dimensional characters and putting them in an impossible situation. A scene where Wiesler confronts Christa and speaks to her about the "truth" of her profession as a stage performer touches on one of Donnersmarck's key inspirations: Thomas Mann's writings about the nature of desire and how that desire is nourished by separation and fantasy. The Lives of Others is intensely literate and, as a consequence, slipperier than just another Eastern Bloc genre exercise. Brecht is referenced visually and literally in the appearance of a purloined manuscript, suggesting that the author's carefully-armoured politicism is mirrored here and, more, that we've been invited to peel away the layers with which Donnersmarck has overlaid his own little melodrama. It's that wonder of a populist, bittersweet-but-ultimately-feel-good piece that has a heart you believe in and a working brain to match. Originally published: November 24, 2006.