Sony // 2006 // 138 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Ryan Keefer (Retired) // August 30th, 2007
Before the fall of the Berlin Wall, East Germany's secret police listened to your secrets.
Many people probably know The Lives of Others in its other name, which is "how did that beat Pan's Labyrinth for Best Foreign Film at the 2007 Oscars?" Well, it's over and done with, and people should just deal with it. So now that The Lives of Others is out on home video, the question has to be is it all that and the proverbial bag of chips?
Written and directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck (Mitternacht), the film takes place in 1984 East Germany. Weisler (Ulrich Muhe, Snowland) is a well-placed and loyal member of the Stasi. He is assigned to perform surveillance on Dreyman (Sebastian Koch, Gloomy Sunday), a playwright for the East German theater. On occasion, Dreyman writes for Christa (Martina Gedeck, The Good Shepherd), who is forced to be intimate with a high ranking cabinet member. Dreyman is considered a subversive who is writing anti-government material, and Christa is forced into a position where she might have to expose his activities. All of this transpires under Weisler's eyes and ears, which starts to affect him personally.
If there's one thing that you could take away from this film, it's that Ulrich Muhe turns in a masterful performance using as little emotion as possible. Weisler is a product of a system that stifled emotion and dissent for as long as he could remember. In seeing the relationship between Dreyman and Christa, Weisler seems to be deeply effected by it. He questions his role in the government, but because of the system, it's in an environment where no one can be outspoken. His actions are modest and more subtle. And upon further review, discovering details about Muhe's treatment by the Stasi in East Germany make the performance even more commendable. He was placed under secret surveillance from his high school days, and when he moved to his theater group, four colleagues were informants on his activities (he managed to identify two of those). Even at home, his wife was supposedly an informant as well. He continued to suffer even after disclosing this treatment, from countrymen who accused him of breaking a taboo of discussing the past transgressions.
The way that von Donnersmarck lets the story unfold is also much more expert than his short career would let on. Clearly his desire for authenticity is heartfelt, but from a storytelling point of view, his characters' lives come first and foremost, save for Weisler. But von Donnersmarck brings some opening recollections back and makes them part of a suspenseful tale. A scene involving fabric on a chair early in the film comes back into play later which heightens the drama. I realize that sentence might sound silly, but trust me on this, it works.
Yet another element of the film that I haven't covered yet, but winds up being very moving and effective, was most of what happened after the Berlin Wall came down. Dreyman had been in a creative funk for several years by that point, but after the wall falls, he finds out the complete story about what the Stasi were involved with as it related to him and Christa, and it's simultaneously overwhelming and poignant. These scenes are among the best in an already excellent film, one deserving of repeated viewings by home video audiences. Sadly, Muhe won't have the chance to enjoy any of the increased recognition, as he died of stomach cancer three weeks before the film's video release. His performance is an exquisite final act.
The 2.35:1 MPEG-4 encoded transfer is quite solid on this Sony release. The grays and blacks of the dull and oppressive German landscape transfer over well to this disc, and a fine amount of detail can be made in some of the stationary shots. All in all, it's a commendable transfer. The PCM soundtrack brings out all the detail of the film, but more emphasis comes when Weisler is actually listening to the activities in the room. Otherwise, either with this or the Dolby Digital 5.1 track, there's not too much difference between the two options.
From an extras perspective, the extras are exacts with the standard definition disc. There's a commentary with von Donnersmarck that is just as engrossing as the film itself. He discusses Muhe's treatment, but there are others among the crew whom he recalls talking about their stories with them. One cast member was imprisoned for almost two years, and another was given an emotionally draining one week deadline to turn as an informant, only to refuse the offer. He even recalls some of his father's experiences with the Stasi. And that's before talking about the production, on which he has an abundance of memory, from style choices to casting. He even talks about some of the German actors and helps to introduce a Western equivalent for those of us unfamiliar with some of the names. It's clear after this commentary that von Donnersmarck clearly knows what he's talking about, as the commentary is one of the better and more informative ones I've listened to in awhile. And if that wasn't enough, he returns for a half hour's worth of interviews on the film. Some of this is restated from the commentary, but to hear that the research and screenwriting process took almost three years to complete before production even started is amazing. A making of look at the film follows with interviews from the cast and crew, which is nice to see as Muhe discusses any lingering emotion from the treatment he received. But it also covers the requisite thoughts on the story and the new director, and concludes with the German equivalent of the Oscars, where the film won seven "Lolas" and was nominated for four more. Concluding the disc are seven deleted scenes that run about nine minutes in length, most of which are fairly unnecessary. If anything, it provides Weisler's character some more emotional depth.
The material is probably the film's biggest hindrance towards reaching a wider audience. It's not the cheeriest of films, but it still is emotionally moving and well worth the time. So no, there are no rebuttal witnesses in this case.
Is The Lives of Others well worth the Oscar win? In a word, absolutely, without question. Muhe's performance and von Donnersmarck's direction are amazing, and on high definition it looks as good as it's going to. It's definitely worth renting, though there's an intangible quality about it that makes you want to see it over and over again.
Not guilty, and the court sends its deepest apologies to those affected by the GDR's treatment of its citizens.
Review content copyright © 2007 Ryan Keefer; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (Widescreen)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (German)
* PCM 5.1 Surround (German)
Running Time: 138 Minutes
Release Year: 2006
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Audio Commentary by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
* Deleted Scenes
* Making of Featurette
* Interview Footage
* Official Site