Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #57
Director: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
Starring: Sebastian Koch and Ulrich Mühe
I should preface my thoughts on this movie with a few things: I visited Europe in the summer of 2008, and of all the cities I spent time in, I spent the longest in Berlin. Of the time I spent in Berlin, I spent the most time in East Berlin. While I was in East Berlin, my group visited the Stasi Museum. This was a profound experience for me – both because one of my teachers fell in love with the tour guide ("Stasi girl," as we called her. Note to all: if you fall in love with a woman, learn her name.) but also because the experience was truly chilling. We learned that it was very likely that one in every two East Berliners in the 1980s were informants for State Security. We saw the brilliant ways Stasi agents would put homes and vehicles under surveillance – a watering can with a camera in the spout was the most memorable. To think that this kind of widespread spying of a government on its own people was happening so recently in the Western world is kind of astonishing, but reality is indeed stranger than fiction.
Another profound lesson I learned from the Germans I got to know while I was in their country was that they, unlike so many Americans, are willing to admit their past faults and condemn them with a heavy hand. If the American Civil War happened in Germany, the countless rednecks with Confederate flags on their trucks would be paying steep fines for their so-called free expression. The fascinating information I learned at the Stasi Museum in Berlin, paired with my understanding of the German people's willingness to condemn their nation's ugly past sins, made me very excited to see The Lives of Others, the debut film by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. I knew the movie was about 1980s East Berlin and the stranglehold that the Stasi had on it, and I knew it was the kind of movie that could only be made by a German, in the German language, shot in Germany, and starring German actors. Any outside influence would serve only to make the whole experience less authentic.
Unsurprisingly, The Lives of Others is amazing. Immediately after it ended, my first thought was that this was the best German film I'd ever seen. My second thought was that it was the best foreign film I'd ever seen. In 140 bold minutes, von Donnersmarck transcended the best works of Bergman, Fellini, Kurosawa, and others for me. I'm not sure if I still have that opinion now that I've come down from it a bit, but I certainly don't think it's a ridiculous declaration.
The movie operates on two main levels: as a psychological examination of the watcher/watched relationship, and as a criticism of totalitarian rule and the flaws inherent in that system. The latter has been done a million times by a million writers, but the former brings up a more interesting series of questions. The combination of the two makes for one of the most fascinating premises for a movie that I've ever known.
I'm not going to bother with names for this synopsis since they are German and I would stumble upon them just typing them out, but in short, a playwright thought to be loyal is put under surveillance by the Stasi on a gut feeling that he may be disloyal, when the Stasi agent put in charge of snooping on him becomes sympathetic towards him and doesn't turn in any of the concrete evidence that the has against him. There's plenty more, including an important arc involving the playwright's actress girlfriend, who is a Stasi informant, but that's the general gist. The story itself is brilliantly told, but the film really shines as a study of characters – normal people, all – forced to live in a society that thinks it normal to spy on one's significant other and turn them in to be imprisoned if the situation sees fit. There's plenty of cynical German commentary on how they once were, and again, only Germany could make this film as powerful as it is.
Maybe I sound like a typical white American college-age snob when I say that I "get" this movie because I spent time in East Berlin, but I truly believe it. The fabric of that place is so indelibly stamped on The Lives of Others that I can hardly imagine enjoying it even half as much if I had never visited there. That being said, even that half-enjoyment would be enough to make this movie a masterpiece.
The Good: How incredibly German it is. I've harped on it already, but it couldn't be much more German, and that is its strength. Somehow I don't think calling Blue Collar Comedy Tour "incredibly American" would put it in the same category.
The Bad: HGW XX/7's character arc is a bit rushed. We don't really see how he goes from ruthless, cold-blooded Stasi company man to the guy who lets Dreyman get away with publishing an article about how East Germany causes suicide and then covers it up. It would be nice to know what the hell happened there.
The Skinny: Deserves its place. Unfortunately, "foreign" is not one of the genres that IMDb lets you sort lists by (And rightly so, "foreign" isn't a true genre, but that's another rant for another time), but if it were, I would expect to see The Lives of Others in the top ten. And it would deserve it.