Monday, October 12, 2009

Das Leben der Anderen

Rating : 10/10
Release Date : March, 2006
Time : 137 minutes
Director & Writer: Florian Henckel Von Donnersmarck; Music :
Starring : Ulrich Muhe, Martina Gedeck, Sebastian Koch, Ulrich Tukur, Thomas Thieme, Hans-Uwe Bauer, Charly Hubner, Volkmar Kleinert

“Because they decide what we play. Who is to act. And who is to direct “

“The state office for statistics at Hans-Beimler Strasse counts everything, knows everything.
How many shoes I buy a year…. 2.3.
How many books we read….. 3.2.
How many pupils graduate with straight A’s…. 6347.
But if you ask the office about the number of suicides per year, the statistics department on Beimler Strasse falls strangely silent”

“Prison Conditions for Subversive Artists. A dissertation. Did you know there are 5 types of artists ?”

This is the best film I’ve seen since I’ve begun reviewing and is a gripping watch, one which tests your bladder as you fear missing a single scene.

‘The Lives of Others’ is set in GDR, a few years prior to Glasnost and shows us the working of the Stasi, the East German secret police with 100,000 employees and 200,000 informers, whose mission is “to know everything”. This much we learn in the introductory text. The rest is learnt through five key characters.

1. Minister Hempf. A slimy, loathsome creature, much like most of our politicians, unable to look beyond personal interests. Rude to his subordinates, throws his weight around. He has a sweet tooth for an actress and unfortunately the Stasi cultural division, entrusted with spying on artists, reports into him.
2. Herr Grubitz : the person looking after the cultural division, reporting to Hempf. Only concerned about his career advancement. Is also repulsive but quite a few degrees lower than Hempf. And his intellect is not to be trifled with…his instinct usually leads him to the right answer…Also, in deference to the Minister’s wishes, he has to place the actress’ house under surveillance.
3. Christa-Maria Sieland (CMS) : the unfortunate centre (maybe I should say victim ?) of the minister’s attention. She’s very good-looking without being stunning, is a very good actress but not very sure about herself and realises she needs to be on the right side of ‘the system’. Lives with, loves and is loved dearly by Georg Dreyman
4. Georg Dreyman : one of the best writers of the GDR, writes plays and occasional books / articles. Is so good that he could easily go to the West but chooses to stay on. Knows where to draw the line, and doesn’t write or say anything inappropriate, to be treated as subversive, but does it without compromising his creativity. Loves CMS, who also stars in his play. He knows about the minister’s crush on her and has to find a way to deal with it.
5. Weislar : The man in charge of the surveillance on Dreyman / CMS. Grubitz’s right hand man since their early days in Stasi’s school, where he now teaches part-time and in the opening sequence is shown demonstrating how he breaks down prisoner #227 systematically, efficiently and remorselessly. He leads a spartan, grey and unloved existence but seems absolutely at peace with it. But as he watches over the Dreyman house, he begins to get involved…

In this film everything was perfect. The casting. Everyone was brilliant. Each of the people above, and even the extra’s, including the jovial Udo, who is assisting the surveillance and prefers to watch over artistes vs priests and peace activitists because of their ‘extra-curricular’ activties. Or the assistant in the Stasi canteen, who recites a joke with unfortunate consequences. Or Jerska, Dreyman’s preferred director who is now unfortunately blacklisted for the last seven years. Or his friend Hauser, who cannot always keep his emotions under control and encourages Dreyman to take a stand. Or even the script expert who knows all there is to know about typewriters.

But the person who stands out, who’s steady, unblinking gaze conveys a thousand thoughts and steely resolve, who steals the show and holds the film together, lending it much of its gripping quality, is Ulrich Muhe as Hauptman Gerd Wieslar. This man deserved an Oscar…not just for ‘Best Actor in a Foreign Film’ but ‘Best Actor’ per se…However, as the recent Nobel Prize decision has shown us, not all juries are as impartial as they should be.

There are also three other things which transform this film from very good to really great. First is editing. The pace of the film, about something as boring as surveillance, never lags and even though no character ever breaks into so much as a jog, the film simply breezes through its 2 hour duration. The second is the dry German humour, beautifully exemplified in the dialogue, from place to place, very naturally, which ensures the film never gets too heavy. And third, probably the most important, is the script. Fantastic for its simplicity and for the depth of characters it paints, the amount of emotion it makes us invest in each of them. And for the numerous twists it throws up, especially when you least expect it. Like the end, which leaves you with a touching, bitter-sweet smile on your face. This film re-invigorated my belief that if you have a great script, the rest can fall into place…

Just as The Shawshank Redemption is set for the most part inside the four walls of a prison but its ultimate message is about hope, this film is set in an entire country (GDR) which functions like a prison with a literal wall guarding a border…and yet, offers the same message. Amidst all the greyness, all the desolation, all the grime, sadness and systemic oppression. Hope. That most powerful of human emotions. Which almost never dies…

BTW, this did win the Oscar, for Best Foreign Film in 2007…but I stand firm on what I said above about the 'Best Actor'


Anonymous said...

I guess 10/10 makes it a must watch.... Look forward to it!!!


Pradosh said...

I had watched it when it was released in India in early 2008. Easily the best movie I have seen so far - the end was a sort of sucker punch ! Fabulous

Unknown said...

Watched the movie albeit, not in one sitting. So it lost some of its impact but the overall punch was still overwhelming. Fabulous ending, makes us marvel at history's twists and turns and the impact of non verbal communications! Keep 'em 10/10's coming.