I’m not kidding when I say I had been wanting to watch The Lives of Others, the best foreign film Oscar winner of 2007, since the movie was first released in 2006. I blink and it’s 7 years later.
Well, I finally got the chance to catch the movie the other night and I’m glad to say it didn’t disappoint. It is without a doubt a film worthy of its “classic” status.
I’ll admit I don’t know as much about the whole East Germany/West Germany/Berlin Wall thing (even after my visit to Berlin in ’09) as I probably should, but the narrative is so expertly crafted that you don’t really need all the background knowledge to be engrossed by it. Set in the 1980s, it tells the story of a Stasi agent who develops a conscience while spying on a famous playright and his actress lover during the height of political tensions between East and West.
The introductory scene, a ruthless interrogation, sets the tone perfectly. The agent, Wiesler, is presented as a loyal Stasi agent dedicated to uncovering enemies of the state. But as time goes on and he becomes immersed in the lives of his subjects, he realises that his task is not is simple as it originally appeared. It’s a tale about the conflict between duties and morals, controlling feelings of sympathy and empathy, and having the courage to do what one feels is right.
The Lives of Others is so good because of its powerful and unassuming subtlety. Nothing is hammered home (like so many Hollywood films we see these days) but the film’s emotional impact is undeniable. When you think about it closely, there’s really nothing mindblowing about the plot, but the story knows exactly where it is going and everything gradually and skillfully falls into place like pieces of a giant puzzle. For a relatively slow film, there’s a surprising amount of tension too, a demonstration of what a filmmaker can do when he or she has a firm grasp of the nuances of pacing and structure.
The performances are impeccable, with Ulrich Mühe a standout as the lonely and conflicted protagonist. He is the heart and soul of the film, but Sebtastian Koch, who plays the playwright Dreyman, and Martina Gedeck, who plays his lover Sieland, are also both excellent as the vulnerable and fragile couple who drive the film’s emotional core.
The best compliment that can probably be paid to The Lives of Others is that it’s film that will resonate with viewers for a very long time. For me, it is the best foreign drama I’ve seen since the 2009 Spanish film The Secret in Their Eyes.
4.5 stars out of 5