Sunday, April 15, 2007

Review - The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen)

The Oscars aren't generally the place you look to for surprising results, and for the most part this year's ceremony was more of the same, but there was one award which managed to raise a few eyebrows. Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth was the biggest name among the five nominees in the Best Foreign Language Film category - with almost unanimous acclaim, strong box-office and multiple nominations in its favour - but the voters decided to look past those factors and they handed the Oscar to The Lives of Others; a film about life in Stasi-era East Germany from the tremendously-named director Florian Henckel von Donnersmark.

That Oscar has been just one of numerous international awards which Donnersmark's film has been receiving over the past year, and critics have been falling over themselves to shower it with praise, but I couldn't help feeling The Lives of Others is something of a disappointment. It's certainly a very accomplished piece of filmmaking - written, acted and directed with consummate skill and professionalism - but I can't really see much more than that, and it's hard to see why exactly this efficient thriller has been so fêted wherever it has played.

What's easier to see is the reason why The Lives of Others has been such a storming success in Germany. After films like Downfall and Goodbye Lenin, this is the latest attempt by a new generation of German filmmakers to get to grips with the misdeeds of generations past; and while The Lives of Others acknowledges the shadowy work done by the Stasi - the secret police and intelligence service of the GDR - it also manages to serve up this dark period in the country's history in the form of an uplifting narrative and an easily-digestible structure. The film plays safe, in other words, and that's a pity, because a little more inspiration and adventure really could have turned this into a picture worthy of the hype.

The central character in The Lives of Others is Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe) a well-regarded and fiercely loyal Stasi captain who is given the task of spying on one of the country's leading playwrights, Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch). Dreyman is generally thought of as an upright character, whose work doesn't tend to display the anti-government sentiment practised by many of his fellow writers, but Wiesler is ordered to find something under the respectable façade in a directive which has come straight from minister Bruno Hempf (Thomas Thieme). Hempf has his own reasons for wanting Dreyman out of the way - he has designs on the writer's actress girlfriend Christa (Martina Gedeck) - but Wiesler is the kind of man who just follows orders and doesn't ask questions, and his team goes to work bugging Dreyman's apartment and establishing a listening post in the attic.

These early scenes are terrific, giving the viewers a fascinating insight into a country ruled by fear and suspicion. The Stasi's effectiveness lay in part with the network of informants they had control over throughout the GDR; it is estimated that there were between 200,000 and 300,000 people at various points monitoring the activities of their friends, colleagues and neighbours and reporting any remotely suspicious behaviour. With some one in fifty members of the East German public under the employment of the government nobody knew who they could trust, and there was good reason to fear the prospect of being denounced by one of these spies. The Stasi could instantly blacklist or imprison anyone who the shadow of suspicion fell upon; the fact that Donnersmark sets his story in 1984 is surely no coincidence.

The writer/director expresses the pervading atmosphere of unease brilliantly through some well-executed scenes. The film opens with Wiesler interrogating a young man who has been questioned for forty hours without any sleep, and he cuts between this sequence and a scene of Wiesler using this interrogation as an example to the young Stasi students he is lecturing. One young man dares to ask if it is inhuman to keep a man awake for forty hours, and Wiesler casually places a mark against this student's name before answering. Heaven knows what fate might await him. Another nice scene occurs when Wiesler is having lunch with his colleague Grubitz (Ulrich Tukur) and a young Stasi employee begins telling an anti-socialist joke before realising who is at the other end of the table. Grubitz insists on hearing the end of the joke and laughs heartily before his face drops and he asks for the young man's name and rank; and Donnersmark gives this interchange a neat punchline towards the end of the picture.

But while The Lives of Others is often excellent in the way it depicts the insidious, sinister machinations of the State's surveillance, and the difficulties faced by those living under its incessant gaze, Donnersmark's screenplay proves to be problematic in other areas. The main plot hook here is that Wiesler, during the course of his investigation, softens slightly on Dreyman and he begins fabricating reports in order to hide the writer's true activities from his superiors. Frankly, this idea of a Stasi captain risking his own life to protect people he barely knows is pulled straight from the realms of fantasy, and The Lives of Others never quite managed to make me a believer. We see Wiesler's soul being reawakened by art - he's reduced to tears by a passage of music being played by Dreyman, and he sneaks into the apartment to steal a book of Brecht poems - but these scenes are too trite to genuinely express the change of heart he undergoes, and there remains a jarring disconnect between the man he is at the start of the film and the man he is at the end.

Ulrich Mühe does a fine job in the central role though, and the fact that I was willing to overlook this central implausibility to some extent was predominately down to his exceptional work. His character is a closed-off man who lives alone in a shabby apartment and has little human contact outside of work (his mechanical session with a chubby prostitute is about as miserable and cold a sex scene as you'll ever see), and Mühe's performance in this role is wonderfully controlled. He etches the changes in his character's beliefs through subtle changes in his face and demeanour, and he constantly maintains the viewer's full attention. The performances are actually fine right across the board - Tukur and Thieme are particularly memorable as the despicable officials - but the film never really rises above a certain level of entertainment.

Donnersmark certainly knows how to put a film together, and The Lives of Others is nothing if not handsomely made; but there's a certain naïveté and shallowness to his screenplay which fails to match the quality of his classy, expansive direction. The film lacks the depth and complexity which gives something like Coppola's The Conversation (a clear influence on this picture) its devastating power, and that lack of emotional weight is damaging to the its overall impact. The final scenes of Dreyman trying to track down the man who saved him are dangerously sentimental, striving for an emotion the film hasn't earned, and they give this generally solid picture a disappointingly cloying finale. Having said that, there is a lot to like about The Lives of Others; it's a skilfully made piece of work which is always engaging, well performed and often quite exciting, but the adulation it has received so far continues to baffle me. Florian Henckel von Donnersmark has marked his filmmaking debut with an impressive thriller, but the Lives of Others is really no more than that.