When the prospect of graduation is in students’ line of sight, some of us panic, others coast through their courses doing the bare minimum of required work (back in high school it was called the “senior slide”) and then there are others like German director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck who spend five years working on a feature-length project for his Munich based film program. Holding a degree in philosophy from Oxford University, one may have said that von Donnersmarck had nothing left to prove but then again, he hadn’t received an Oscar yet and after completing his opus indeed the director with the long name walked away with the award for Best Foreign Film during the 2007 Academy Awards for his film that received more than forty additional accolades worldwide. It’s a film that has been on Top 10 lists for both 2006 and 2007 (depending on your definition of release date and rules) and set a record last year in its German homeland for the most nominations ever in the German Film Awards earning the epic, entitled The Lives of Others a total of eleven and making its director, whose previous experience had been in short filmmaking something of a legend. The Lives of Others which required one and a half years of extensive research and interviews and evolved over five drafts into screenplay form which took an additional year and a half begins in Berlin in 1984 and chronicles the efforts of the East German Secret Police and GDR that made a regular habit of spying on citizens they feared may be disloyal or about to flee to the free west.
Cool-headed, severe Stasi secret police agent Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe) is given the task of heading up the investigation into the lives of playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) and his live-in actress girlfriend Christa Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck) after their apartment is bugged and he’s stationed nearby listening in to their most intimate moments with his ears attached to government issued headphones. The film which begins with an exploration of, as critic Leonard Maltin stated, “the poisonous nature of a society built on suspicion and doubt,” becomes a fascinating and inspiring tale of humanity and morality as Wiesler experiences not only art for the first time in his eavesdropping but he discovers his own humanity as he begins to care for two people in question. The film which charts the “axis of principle and feeling,” or the line one walks between the two trying to find a balance between the two extremes as the director explained on the DVD was the only production ever allowed to film in the GDR archives. Adding to the validity of the piece is the usage of real locations and absence of digital effects anywhere from the proper period signage that extends into the rest of the production design. The director, who was inspired by the color scheme of the first Indiana Jones picture, conceived the film’s look to keep things interesting and consistent, replacing blue with green and red with browns and oranges to make as he phrased a more stylized version of the GDR since in memories some colors become more dominant and others left out.
All of the elements work together in perfect unison to create of the finest German films since Caroline Link’s Nowhere in Africa and it’s much to the director’s credit that the hefty running time of 137 minutes along with the grim subject matter of communist espionage and the destruction of citizens’ lives can be not only compelling throughout but be presented in such a unique way as to show both sides and emphasize humanity over inhumanity. Leading man Sebastian Koch who was also in the underrated Black Book last year turns in his second brilliant performance in recent memory but the one we can’t take our eyes off of is Ulrich Mühe. Mühe who’s especially good in his role, brings an authentic air to the work as director von Donnersmarck noted in his DVD interview that the actor was one of several involved from East Germany and Mühe had been on Stasi surveillance because of his immense promise as a young actor in high school through the beginnings of his theatrical career. Mühe, like the film itself will stay in the minds of viewers long after The Lives of Others ends and hopefully with more press as the film is featured on prominent critical best lists of 2007 will gain a greater audience following for, as the title connotes, it’s the kind of work that is made with the compassion and integrity global citizens should have for the lives of others.