March 8, 2007

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The Lives of Others (R)
The East German Stasi is indeed watching every move you make, every breath you take in the wonderfully, frighteningly tense The Lives of Others, the movie that spoiled the Panís Labyrinth Oscar lovefest by taking the Academy Award for best foreign film.

Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Muhe) is a diligent captain in the East German secret police, the Stasi, in the 1980s. He teaches interrogation techniques to future spies and is himself quite good at finding the lie beneath the vehement denial. He is also loyal to the system, putting a checkmark next to the name of a student who questions the morality of using sleep deprivation as an interrogation technique.

A social climber friend invites him to a play that will be attended by a party bigwig, Bruno Hempf (Thomas Thieme). The playís author is a much lauded playwright, Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch), one of the few who isnít a subversive or secretly sending work to the West, the social climbing friend tells Wiesler. Iíd keep him under watch, Wiesler said. This idea is particularly agreeable to Hempf, who is carrying on an affair with Wieslerís girlfriend, actress Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck). Hempf wants the interrogation carried out secretly, so the friend asks the thorough Wiesler to do it. Wiesler sets up listening devices in the wall of Dreymanís apartment where Sieland also lives and a surveillance camera over their outside door. He bugs their phone and then sets up a center where he can monitor all of these eyes and ears and report on Dreymanís every move (right down to reporting that Sieland and Dreyman have ďintercourseĒ after a conversation).

Dreyman seems disinterested in clashing with the government but he is angered over the blacklisting of a former play director ó though, as Hempf reminds him, there is no blacklisting in East Germany.

Though Christa-Maria has all sorts of secrets ó her affair with Hempf, her drug addiction ó Dreyman has relatively few until he decides he must speak out about his friendís exile from his work. Wiesler listen as the writer sets up a plan to write a defense of his friend and smuggle west. He seems fascinated by Dreymanís decision ó so much so that he even starts to protect the playwright from his actions.

Even with all we know about our surveillance-happy government, it is startling how obsessed the East Germans were with knowing not just the basics but almost the feelings and thoughts of all its citizens. It turned thousands of people into informers ó we see evidence of this social breakdown in the movie. There is even a moment when Wiesler is alone in an elevator with a young boy. The boy repeats some innocuous yet vaguely anti-government joke of his fatherís. Wiesler only barely catches himself before he asks the boy what his fatherís name is. In another scene, a neighbor sees the Stasi bug Dreymanís apartment. Without consulting a single file or asking another officer for information, Wielser goes to her and threatens her with taking away her daughterís scholarship if the woman ever tells anyone that they were at the apartment. That such specific information about an average person would be in his brain is chilling.

Wieslerís observation of his subject does change their behavior, in part because he canít limit himself to watching but becomes moved to act in small ways that alter the outcome of Dreymanís life. Not reporting a phone call and misidentifying an action set the course for Wieslerís eventual defiance of the system he seemed, in the filmís beginning, to so rigidly support. The ďwhyĒ behind this might have something to do with the humanness of Dreyman and Sieland and the way in which their lives seemed more vivid than Wieslerís. Though no match for the dark beauty and heart-pounding adventure of Panís Labyrinth, The Lives of Others does dive deeper into the humanity of its characters. For all that Wielser seems bland and Dreyman seems like something of a dilettante, the movie eventually shows the deeper and more complex personalities of both men.

The Lives of Others is a quiet yet surprisingly suspenseful and occasionally funny film that uncovers the cultural weirdness of a government determined to hold sway over its peopleís thoughts. Though not as swashbuckling a tale as Panís Labyrinth, its calculated smarts make it easy to understand why it earned enough votes to win Oscar gold. B+

Rated R for some sexuality/nudity. Written and directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, The Lives of Others (Das Liben der Anderen) is in German with subtitles, is two hours and 17 minutes long and is distributed in the U.S. in limited release by Sony Picture Classics. It is currently playing in Cambridge and Waltham.