Ulrich Mühe as Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler in The Lives of Others
The Lives of Others is fiction intertwined with history. While the narrative is a personal story about two characters, Georg Dreyman and Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler, it’s impossible to imagine the film set in any other place or time. Yet there is a timeless quality to the film. The Lives of Others is a warning about the danger of allowing the government to have too much power. The story follows two central protagonists. One of the characters is Georg Dreyman, a playwright who secretly decides to expose the conditions in East Germany. The other character is Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler, a member of the secret police, who is charged with monitoring Dreyman. Ulrich Mühe delivers a strong performance as Wiesler. Sadly, Mühe passed away a year after the release of this film. During his career he created an impressive body of work. Of particular note, he played Georg in Michael Haneke’s 1997 version of Funny Games. In The Lives of Others, Mühe communicates so much to the audience in the simple act of listening to the other characters! Even though Dreyman is not aware of Wiesler for the majority of the movie, they both play crucial roles in each other’s lives. Dreyman’s and Wiesler’s fortunes are woven together.
The film was directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. The development of all of the movie’s characters are impressively balanced. Wiesler doesn’t see as much interaction as Dreyman, but his character feels just as developed. Donnersmarck made short films prior to The Lives of Others, but had never dealt with the running time of a feature film. One of the movie’s strengths is that it goes further than most films with similar subject matter. The film has several logical points where it could reach a conclusion, but the story continues to a moment that is more satisfying than one could suspect.
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By the end of the film the protagonists, and the society that they live in, have found a certain amount of peace. There doesn’t seem to be any question during the course of film whether the natures of central characters are good, but there is a question of whether they will make the right decisions. At its core The Lives of Others is about good people trying to navigate through a series difficult situations. No one is safe in their world and the characters are constantly confronted with turmoil. Dreyman is an upper class man who could sit back and enjoy the benefits bestowed by his status. The government has no reason to suspect that Dreyman is up to anything subversive; however, they begin monitoring him routinely. We discover that Wiesler is as much of a patriot as Dreyman. He exists to further insurrection. This is not a story of revolution. It is the story of the road in which subversion takes place. It is about a voice that speaks above injustice. Society should pay attention to the lessons from this part in history.
The Lives of Others won an Academy Award for best foreign language film. It was nice to see such an excellent film receive such a high profile award. Before Sydney Pollack passed away, he was preparing an American remake of this film. It seems almost impossible for me to imagine a version of the film divorced from its cultural roots. The foreign language market is obviously limited; however, I don’t quite see the point of trying to translate a film with a specific history to the American market. Subject matter alone is not what makes The Lives of Others special. There are plenty of other films about repressive governments. Trying to capitalize on of the film’s subject matter seems pointless. Both the performances and the stylistic approach of The Lives of Others are essential components to its success. There is beauty in the way Donnersmarck crafted his film that cannot be duplicated. This is the type of movie that makes me love the world of cinema. Although it was made far away from the “Hollywood machine”, it was still able to reach a receptive audience. People crave great stories and The Lives of Others delivers an excellent story to that desire.
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