Tuesday, April 17, 2007

The Lives of Others

Poster for Lives of Others; photo by Val Phoenix
(Das Leben der Anderen)dir Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck

An extraordinarily gripping film looking back to Cold War East Berlin in the '80s and the grip held by the State Security Services, or Stasi, over the population.

In placing a Stasi officer at the centre of the piece, writer/director von Donnersmarck subtly shifts the audience's attitudes toward him, from repulsion to sympathy, as his behaviour changes from blind obedience to flouting his orders.

The officer, Wiesler, a blank-faced man dressed in grey, has been assigned the task of spying on a playwright, Dreyman. The order is politically compromised as a corrupt government official has designs on the playwright's girlfriend, the actress Christa-Maria Sieland. Wiesler starts off his surveillance playing by the book but gradually he comes to sympathise with the couple and starts falsifying his reports. It all climaxes in tragedy but the tension is repeatedly ratcheted up as pressure falls on Wiesler from his superiors and the couple are also compromised.

There are some brilliant moments of black comedy within the film. The repulsive official, Hempf, praises Dreyman with the quote, "Writers are engineers of the soul", before a dissident reminds him the author of the quote is Stalin. He is nonplussed.

The idea of The Good Man becomes a motif, as well, with Dreyman referring to a sonata of the same title and then writing a novel of the same name. The film seems to be asking: who is good? who is evil? can people change? what are the responsibilities of artists?

Thought-provoking, politically charged and very handsomely made.

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