The cinema of post-World War II Germany is bleak and desolate. It displays its expressionist roots, without the faint promise of redemption. Think most specifically of Fassbinder's nightmares that are often gritty, painfully distant and sparse in dialogue. Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's directorial debut The Lives of Others adheres to this style of filmmaking, but manages to rekindle the glimpses of humanity that had long disappeared from German films. She is Wim Wenders, but with a tighter focus on reality and a connection to human experience more indicative of Italian Realism. The Lives of Others is a rather predictable film that still manages to suspend its viewers placing them into dueling worlds in which they are constantly confused about what group represents good and evil, a divide of ideals that is as thick as the wall that divided Germany in the era depicted within the film.
I am going to dance around the rather lengthy and multifaceted plot, because to explain it in too much depth would be to rob viewers of an intensely emotional movie that is almost entirely predicated on character evolution and regression. With that being said, the film focuses the majority of the narrative on two individuals the GDP lieutenant Hauptmann Wiesler (Ulrich Muhe) whose professional job entails him interrogating dissidents to the GDP, as well as planting and monitoring surveillance setups for possible political dissidents. The other portion of the narrative focuses on Wiesler's current subject, the famous playwright and previously outspoken political rebel Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch). After attending one of Dreyman's plays Wiesler suspects Dreyman of political subversiveness and demands to be allowed to monitor him. Wiesler's higher up dismisses this claim at first, but agrees to allow him access after one of his superiors shows interest in Dreyman's girlfriend and main actress Christa (Martina Gedeck). Dreyman shows much enthusiasm for his job and is determined to nail Dreyman with insubordination as soon as he finds evidence. However, as Wiesler comes to discover Dreyman, and his associates are experience a rather unfair living because of the GDP and the simple act of living proves unbearable. Without expanding further on the plot, Wiesler comes to realize that his actions are inhumane and that his spying is leading to the downfall of an arguably innocent man. What follows is a both tragic and redemptive film about personal choice and being honest in the face of unseen judgment.
The Lives of Others is preoccupied with voyeurism. It is both a film about watching those who are unaware of a gaze, as well as the ethical dilemna of enjoying a film about invading privacy. What Von Donnersmarck does is creates a film where the viewer both condemns and partakes in voyeurism creating an ethical dilemma for the viewer. We, as viewers,are appalled by the actions Wiesler and his men undertake, yet at no point did I feel as though I should stop watching the film, in fact I eagerly anticipated each of his discoveries and applauded him for using his infiltration to attempt to mend the problems that arose. However, it raises the question as to whether or not such an invasion of privacy is appropriate, particularly in the wake of ever-increasing government infiltration into our daily lives (Think the PATRIOT Act). The question than becomes whether Wiesler's good actions justify his voyeurism, because he is inevitably invading privacy to do so. Or to make it more relative to daily life, is it justifiable for our government to tap are phone calls and hear our most intimate secrets, purely on the belief that one out of every thousand conversations could prove to be a national threat. I by no means am attempting to provide and answer, but am simply applauding The Lives of Others for bringing the question about so eloquently. It is a film that displays a quest for answers, but only provides the viewer with questions.
The Lives of Others is the reason blu-ray players exist, but a copy immediately.