“The 40th Anniversary Play”
Many people were startled by the fact that Pan’s Labyrinth lost the Best Foreign Film Oscar to its fellow nominee Das Leben der Anderen [The Lives of Others]. Granted, many hadn’t seen the German film yet, however, I think the push that the Spanish fantasy had, while also taking a few technical Oscars in the process, surprised a lot of people. The shock led to numerous movie folk on the internet describing the voting process for that award, how a select group, not the entire Academy, screens the foreign films. Therefore many thought that this more dramatic and adult story was chosen because that group was probably a very pretentious bunch and couldn’t in their right mind vote a fantasy film as a winner above it. Whether this is true or not, Buffalo now has the opportunity to see the award winning film for itself, to decide if it was deserving or not. I must say, while I don’t think it was better than Pan’s I am totally fine with the fact that it won. The Lives of Others is an expertly told thriller, tense throughout, as we never quite know what our protagonist or antagonist will do, or even if they are on opposite sides of the movie’s coin to begin with.
We begin the movie with an introduction to Hauptmann Wiesler, (played perfectly by Ulrich Mühe, who you might know from Haneke’s original Funny Games), a member of the Stasi who is teaching a class on the tactics of an interrogation, and how you must show no remorse when trying to find out enemies to the State. An old friend of his, who has since risen in the ranks of the government faction more for greed than actually wanting to do right by his superiors, tells him about a new surveillance job that has come up straight from the Minister himself. Wiesler, always a man willing to do what is necessary for the cause he believes in, takes the job and begins watching the accused man’s every move. Soon, though, he realizes that this man, while having friends of those with Western loyalties, keeps clean himself when it comes to politics of that persuasion. Instead Wiesler finds that his subject’s live-in girlfriend is having an affair, with the Minister no less. This is not a stakeout to find an enemy; his assignment is one to get rid of a man so that his superior may have a woman all to himself. Disillusionment sets in and Wiesler begins to put a series of events into place that only he knows what he wants the result to be. Does he want to punish the Minister for using his power for selfish gains? Or does he want to prove to everyone that he knows what his job is and will show everyone the power he himself wields.
There are some really fantastic moments throughout the film showing the eventually demise of the GDR. Mühe is fantastic as Wiesler and shows his changing opinions and confusion in what it is he is does for the Stasi. What was once a job for the continuation of socialism in East Germany has become a tool of the leaders to use against their people. When Wiesler and his boss friend go to lunch and he sits at a table of lesser rank than his own, his friend says how the captains sit in the back. Wiesler’s response of how socialism must start somewhere is so true and biting that his friend can only smirk. These leaders no longer work for the common good of all men, they have received power and they now intend to keep it. From this point on you never can tell which side Wiesler is truly working on.
Mühe is not the only great performance of the film, although his calm stoicism and hidden emotion truly carry it. The subject of his mission, Georg Dreyman, a playwright, is wonderfully done by Sebastian Koch. This role is of a man who has seen his politically outspoken friends be punished for voicing their opinions, and has, as a result, decided to not follow suit. Only when his mentor commits suicide does Dreyman finally decide to do something about the stifling regime in power and help the West see the growing dissent in the East. His girlfriend, actress Christa-Maria Sieland, is also portrayed with raw emotion by Martina Gedeck. She is caught between love and survival and has gotten herself too deep in both to be able to leave one for the other. Her part is hard to watch because she tries so hard to keep both halves of her life living in harmony, but being too tired and broken to keep the charade going.
I will again say that I really enjoyed this film. The story was intelligently told and professionally acted and directed. I was on the edge of my seat throughout, waiting to see what Wiesler’s true intentions were. If the film would have ended at its logical finishing mark, I may have put it in my top ten of 2007. However, what was a fascinating tale of two men slowly realizing their beliefs were incorrect and because of which decide to take the dangerous challenge of doing something about it, becomes a history lesson about the fall of the Berlin Wall. It was the concentrated focus that enthralled me, and once a series of epilogues (2 years later, etc…) were tacked on the end, I was totally taken out of the intimacy of the movie. The final shot ends up being so clichéd and safe that, while appropriate, it ends up subverting the rest of the movie’s keep-you-guessing mentality. Some things are best left up to the audience’s imagination, and a final crossing of paths between the watcher and the subject need not be spelled out.
Das Leben der Anderen [The Lives of Others] 8/10 | ★ ★ ★
 Ulrich Muhe as Gerd Weisler. Photo by Hagen Keller, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics, all rights reserved.
 Left: Martina Gedeck as Christa-Maria Sieland; Right: Sebastian Koch as Georg Dreyman. Photo by Hagen Keller, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics, all rights reserved.