Director: Florian Henckel von Dannersmarck
Like many, I was mildly surprised when the Oscar for 2006's Best Foreign Language Film went not to Guillermo del Toro's spellbinding masterpiece Pan's Labyrinth, but instead to this German-made thriller. However, after having finally seen it, the so-called upset is not so hard to believe after all. Combining historical significance with ample doses of suspense and character development, The Lives of Others is irrefutably one finely made film.
The story begins, quite appropriately, in 1984 within the socialist regime of East Berlin. A celebrated playright, Georg Dreyman, is chosen as the target of a surveillance operation by the much-feared Ministry of State Security (Stasi for short). Weisler, a diligent Stasi agent, carries it out, bugging the apartment where Dreyman lives with his longtime girlfriend Christa-Maria and listening in on their lives in the attic above them. However, when he discovers that the mission is meant to aid a despicable minister's goals, Weisler begins to have second thoughts and eventually develops feelings of genuine admiration for the couple. Matters are further complicated when Dreyman becomes more involved in suspicious activities while under the false impression that he is safe from the Stasi.
The Lives of Others is a genuine pleasure to watch for both its design and execution. The storyline is tautly crafted, providing a perpetual air of tension surrounding the people living under the malevolent, Big Brother-like gaze of the Stasi. Suspense is created not only through the main storyline surrounding Dreyman and whether he will be caught, but also a number of other subplots that act as seperately burning fuses, hinting at potential disaster at any moment. Matching the film's superb structure are its fascinating characters, all impressively acted. Sebastian Koch is suitably excellent as Dreyman, the artist struggling to maintain both his safety and a clean conscience, and Martina Gedeck does a fine job portraying the complex Christa-Maria. Ulrich Tukur makes a strong impression as a friend and superior to Weisler (especially in the tense scene that takes place in the cafeteria), but if there is any one actor to admire the most in the film, it would have to be Ulrich Mühe as Weisler himself. Ultimately, the film is telling his story, being that of someone who is at first a cold-hearted bloodhound for the Stasi, then experiences an awakening of sorts, gradually realizing the harm and consequences of his actions and doing his best to make compensation. Sadly, Mühe passed away from cancer in July of 2007, but The Lives of Others stands as a tribute to his remarkable talent - particularly in the film's eerily fitting final freeze-framed shot.
Recreating life in a fascinating yet terrible era of Germany's history, The Lives of Others is informative while never faltering in its devotion to narrative and character. Quite simply, it is a great story told in exactly the right way, hooking its audience and keeping them riveted on every twist and turn that unfolds before them. Without a doubt, I highly, highly, highly reccomend this one.