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"The Lives Of Others"
Dir: Florian Henckel

Patricia Ducey

The credo of the Stasi was simple: “To Know Everything.” And Captain Gerd Wiesler of the East German Secret Police prides himself on a painstaking devotion to that task. A romantic idealist to the end, Wiesler (Ulriche Muhe) is the centerpiece of first timeGerman director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s Oscar-winning The Lives of Others, a view from inside the former GDR through the eyes of one of its apparatchiks. In this East Germany, single-minded obedience is all that is required—yet loneliness, humor and love manage to bubble up and wreak havoc on even this seamless system of control.

Lives is set in East Berlin’s theatrical milieu peopled by the likes of playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) and his beautiful actress girlfriend Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck). Georg and Christa-Maria exist in a social order that is almost bearable, if only they could completely brush aside the stultifying limits of state control under which they must live. Dreyman’s crowd is pure and single-minded, like children; they only want to serve the higher cause of art. They write and act in popular plays; they throw parties and read Western books; even socialist officials like them.

Outside their cocoon, though, the GDR grinds away, funneling every technical and human talent on hand into one enterprise, surveillance. And what experts they are—Wiesler proudly announces his team can completely wire an apartment house in 20 minutes. Dreyman’s precarious paradise begins to unravel when Lt. Col. Anton Grubitz sees him as a golden opportunity to curry favor with a superior who suspects Dreyman of . . . well, nothing specific -- yet Grubitz cannily suggests they initiate surveillance and knows just the man to do it: the cool master operative Wiesler. However, day after day, as Wiesler watches and listens to these “suspects,” he sees a more tawdry and partisan story unfold: the minister’s lust for Christa-Maria, Grubitz’s grubby politicking, and Dreyman’s likeability. Slowly, imperceptibly, something in him changes.

Indeed, Lives might also serve as a meditation on the transformative power of art itself. The director touches on this theme throughout: the notion of Wiesler as audience to the drama of these other lives; Georg’s musing about the power of a beautiful concerto entitled The Sonata of a Good Man, and later seeing watching the betrayals and redemptions play out against his compassionate philosophy.

Lives proves a much-needed and welcome addition to add to the usual movie fare of escape plots and resistance seen from a Western vantage point. von Donnersmarck artfully draws on his own experience of this once closed society to create complex characters, so we identify even more with Georg and Christa-Maria’s—and even Wiesler’s—moral dilemmas.

The film begins aptly in 1984 and ends after the Berlin Wall tumbles down in 1989, a window into a Germany once closed to our view. More than a political thriller or polemic, though, The Lives of Others is a human and universal story—and a cautionary tale about the all too human will to know, and control, everything.

-- Patricia Ducey

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