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Case Number 12019

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The Lives Of Others

Sony // 2006 // 137 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Chief Counsel Rob Lineberger (Retired) // September 7th, 2007

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All Rise...

Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger's Stasi file mentions weird anime and lots of subversive Western literature.

Editor's Note

Our review of The Lives Of Others (Blu-Ray), published August 30th, 2007, is also available.

Opening Statement

In 2003, Good Bye Lenin! made an international splash. Though its East German point of view rendered much of the socio-political subtext foreign to most Americans, the film was quirky and had enough emotional power to break out. Good Bye Lenin! prompted me to say:

East Germany is a closed book to most Westerners. We can only assume that the filmmakers got it right, which explains the nearly universal acclaim afforded Good Bye Lenin! in its native land. An East German coworker of mine loves Good Bye Lenin! because it so accurately recreates the land of his formative years, a land that is gone forever. Without firsthand experience, however, Good Bye Lenin! will not resonate as strongly.

Three years later, The Lives of Others emerges in fascinating contrast. That quote above applies directly to this film as well. Yet where Good Bye Lenin! dealt with the aftermath of the fall, The Lives of Others dwells primarily in the tense times before it. Where Good Bye Lenin! is amusing, The Lives of Others is harsh. Both mean more to those familiar with East Germany, yet contain universal stories that crosses international boundaries.

Then there's the final difference: The Lives of Others took home the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.

Facts of the Case

Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck, Mostly Martha) and Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) are a luminous actress/playwright couple in 1984 East Germany. Their success, happiness, and relative creative freedom irks the corrupt Minister Bruno Hempf (Thomas Thieme) because he's in lust with Christa-Maria. Their joy irks Stasi stalwart Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe) for a different reason: their artistic freedom and happiness are utterly foreign to him.

When Wiesler's superior Oberstleutnant Anton Grubitz (Ulrich Tukur) orders Wiesler to keep tabs on the couple, he is pleased to comply. As he listens to their lives unfold, Wiesler learns hard truths about Communism and humanity.

The Evidence

Like Judge Keefer, who reviewed the high-def release, my primary exposure to The Lives of Others was as "the film that stole the Oscar from Pan's Labyrinth." Though Pan's Labyrinth is great, I didn't have a stake on any particular horse in the 2006 Best Foreign Film race. But my secondary exposure to The Lives of Others was a marketing campaign that practically crowed about the film's R rating for nudity and sexual content. Visions of Leipzig Girls Gone Wild and Dresden Nightlife sprang to mind.

This acclaimed nudity exists as a brief montage of written text over a watermark-like double exposure showing Christa-Maria and Georg in bed. There might have been a nipple behind the words "stationary wiretap" and possibly a buttock crested the term "surveillance," but selling The Lives of Others as sexy or erotic is grossly inaccurate marketing hyperbole.

The real story here is that Florian Henckel Von Donnersmarck's feature debut ambitiously re-creates communist Germany for those of us who couldn't see it for ourselves. This could be exceedingly dull, or outrageously inhuman as in the oft-associated 1984 (since The Lives of Others is set in a 1984 communist regime with wiretaps everywhere, the parallel makes sense.) But the director uses the inhumanities of wiretapping and emotional repression to discuss the human spirit.

The Lives of Others took the Oscar from Pan's Labyrinth because it is a movie lover's movie. This may be his feature debut, but Henckel Von Donnersmarck got most things right. The Lives of Others features a constrained palette with no bright blues or reds. Yellow is replaced by burnt orange. The feature has an austere—but still livable—visual scheme that the director claims is more real than reality in people's minds. The score is also a movie lover's score with its subtle repetition of themes and pair of dramatic musical interludes that shift the narrative. The cast is great, too. Ulrich Mühe's emotionally reserved performance is noteworthy because we can discern a monumental, silent struggle within. Sebastian Koch is comely and gregarious as Georg while Martina Gedeck confirms the skills she showed in Mostly Martha. Henckel Von Donnersmarck recorded the feature in analog and used only the technology available in 1984 for things like posters and set pieces, which gives the film an authentic '80s vibe. When you add these elements together, The Lives of Others is nearly unassailable from a cinematic perspective.

Sony's presentation is suitable for this noteworthy film. Though the backgrounds are quite grainy and the feature takes on a greenish cast, the contrast and detail are strong. The Lives of Others looks good and the transfer reflects that. I was slightly disappointed by the 5.1 track which seemed hollow and thin, though at key moments the bass and clarity kick in. When you're straining to notice aural details, the track delivers. As noted above, the feature was recorded in analog so perhaps the digital conversion was not kind.

Henckel Von Donnersmarck's commentary is packed with interesting information—and so is the interview. In fact, if you're short on time I'd watch the interview because you'll get the commentary's greatest hits. He is a lucid, contemplative man who understands cinema and also understands what we might want to know about his film. The making-of and deleted scenes are standard, but worthwhile, inclusions.

The Rebuttal Witnesses

I'm sure I wasn't supposed to burst out laughing at some of the tragic events in the third act. They were probably meant to be heart-wrenching. Nevertheless, the momentum of the film was derailed by a couple of inexplicable left-field tragedies that reminded me of a soap opera on Ritalin. To its credit, The Lives of Others has an extended and rewarding denouement that pulls the film together and makes even the slower parts well worth the effort. In fact, you cannot truly grasp The Lives of Others without seeing it all the way through to the final shot.

Closing Statement

Leaving aside possible Oscar controversy, The Lives of Others is an authoritative step out of the gate for Florian Henckel Von Donnersmarck. He assembles an excellent cast, cinematographer, and composer while telling a compelling story that is as close to a real spy story as you can get. You will understand the Cold War better after watching this feature.

The Verdict

Not guilty. Destroy the Stasi file.

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Scales of Justice

Video: 92
Audio: 88
Extras: 92
Acting: 96
Story: 88
Judgment: 91

Perp Profile

Studio: Sony
Video Formats:
• 2.35:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (German)
• English
• French
• Spanish
Running Time: 137 Minutes
Release Year: 2006
MPAA Rating: Rated R
• Drama
• Foreign

Distinguishing Marks

• Director's Commentary
• "Interview with Director Florian Henckel Von Donnersmarck"
• "Making of The Lives of Others"
• Deleted Scenes (with optional commentary)


• IMDb
• Official Site

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