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The International Writers Magazine: DVD Review

The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen)
Written and directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck 2006,
starring Ulrich Mühe, Martina Gedeck, Sebastian Koch.

There are different ways how film-makers from formal satellite states of the Soviet Union deal with their communist past. The Czechs are often drowning in forgiving sentimentality (Cosy Dens by Jan Hebejk), the Hungarians ironize in some way comical practices of secret police agents (The Life of an Agent by Gabor Zsigond Papp), the Poles are still in the second world war (The Pianist by Roman Polanski for example).

So were the Germans, although their point of view was slightly different. But it has changed now. The Lives of Others takes place in in German film often neglected era of the GDR. And it brings a new perspective on the life in a communist state.

Von Donnersmarck’s film looks behind the doors of STASI, the German secret police, which were virtually everywhere. Film shows the life of artists in a world of restrictions, censorship and never ending danger of an irresponsible arrest and it shows it quite faithfully. It also shows the life of the agents who are responsible for the constant fear among the people and here is very credible as well. But there is one exception – agent HGW XX/7 (U. Mühe) who is supposed to watch over one of those artists, Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch), and who is going to change during this task. There is a certain lack of credibility about this leading man considered from the historical point of view. Possibly every other agent and actually every single figure in this film are somehow more credible than HGW. Fortunately it is not a documentary movie. It is a drama, really good one, and drama needs dramatic characters more than the real ones. And there is a real strength of The Lives of Others - painful conflict of well built dramatic characters in an unpleasantly real setting.

The plot itself is actually quite ordinary. The way it is treated in is as austere as it can be. And here the director shows real mastery. There is not a single scene longer than it should be, at least not in the first 90 minutes of the film. The story is told as simply as possible, characters are built in real life situations by short dialogues, by their actions and reactions, quick glances and telling details. This style of story telling requires very convincing acting and you will really enjoy actors’ performances. Especially Ulrich Mühe, unfortunately recently deceased, is astoundingly good. There is not a superfluous word said, there is no unnecessary action taken. Yet there are strong but not enforced emotions behind, showed without affected gestures. Everything flows rather quickly, naturally and painfully.

However, no film is perfect and The Lives of Other isn’t an exception. There are some unnecessary exaggerated gestures after all. There are moments when the contrast of not entirely realistic HGW and the realistic setting comes up. But those flaws are usually successfully disguised by excellent and well fitting music so you might not notice them at all. And even if you do, it doesn’t spoil the whole film. At the most, it makes you realise it is just a film you are watching.
Like many of his predecessors working with strong historical events, not even von Donnersmarck was able to leave his story in the right moment. But can the audience enjoy the cathartic almost -happy end? And that is a quality some people will surely appreciate. Although it can somehow make you forget that the main ‘hero’ was actually the villain of the story.
© Josef

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