Thursday, September 06, 2007


Idealism, disillusionment are symbiotic

By Edward Copeland
After the Wedding is the only 2006 nominee for the Oscar for foreign language film that I've yet to see, but it would have to be a damn great movie to convince me that the right one didn't win now that I've seen the superb The Lives of Others.

Set in early 1980s East Germany, The Lives of Others tells a surprisingly compelling story. When it begins, it appears to be merely the story of the feared Stasi (or State Security) as it monitored artists and writers, ending their careers when they felt they threatened the Communist regime.

You think that the film's protagonist is going to be playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch). He's a playwright who has kept his nose clean, so much so that he's received gifts from the wife of East Germany's longtime chancellor, Erich Honecker. Dreyman even seems to embrace the socialist ideology, but he runs afoul of the state anyway because his lover Christa-Maria (Martina Gedeck) also happens to be the mistress of a powerful Communist official (Thomas Thieme) who insists that the Stasi find something on Dreyman, to rid himself of a romantic rival.

The task falls to one of the Stasi's top officials, Anton Grubitz (Ulrich Tukur), who in turn assigns one of his best interrogators and surveillance experts, Wiesler (Ulrich Muhe). Wiesler is a true believer in the state and its causes. At first, he enjoys his surreptitious meddling in Dreyman's life, but then once he realizes that Dreyman isn't a threat to the system but just to a minister's affections, he begins to question everything his government stands for.

This is when it becomes clear that Wiesler is not only the film's protagonist, but its hero as well, and Muhe is superb with his quiet performance. When Dreyman turns against the state following the suicide of a blacklisted friend, instead of reporting the playwright, Wiesler becomes his secret protector.

Sadly, Muhe succumbed to cancer in July of this year. Written and directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, The Lives of Others rivets you to its tale with suspense, heartbreak and even humor. Some scenes play as if they are homages to famous ones from other films such as a scene in a government cafeteria with Grubitz frightening a lower-level bureaucrat in a way that clearly echoes Joe Pesci's "Am I a clown?" scene from Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas.

All the performers are quite good, but this is the late Muhe's movie. Knowing the actor is no longer with us gives his performance even more poignancy in this powerful film.

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Muhe's performance in this is breathtaking. It is so simple and so full. My favorite moment is when he is lying on the floor listening, like he is trying to climb inside of the people he listens to. Such and engaging, moving film.
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