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The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen)

June 18, 2009

Caution: This is not a movie review. Contains spoilers.

The Lives of Others (  German: Das Leben der Anderen) is an Oscar (and multiple) award winning film set in East Germany and directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. After having seen this flick nearly 2 years after its international debut, I think that this is one of the best Political films you will ever see and certainly one of the best movies made in the last 10 years.  The film’s about a wiretapping expert who’s under the orders of the Ministry of Arts & Culture to spy and gather evidence that a famous playwright has anti-Socialist ideologies. 

Gerd Weisler (Ulrich Muhe), a staunch supporter of Socialism, is a interrogation expert who uses unusual methods of coercion to breakdown the suspects. He’s appointed by the Ministry of Culture and Arts to spy on a popular playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) and his lover Christa-Maria (Martina Gedeck). A wiretapping expert by profession, Weisler with the help of Statsi agents puts Dreyman’s apartment under complete surveillance and everyday he begins his strenuous job of listening to the suspects’ conversations and reporting them to his superiors. Over a period of time, he begins to empathize with the situation of the writers and he becomes increasingly compassionate towards them. Untill one day, when all hell breaks loose and…

First things first, I had read about this film couple of years ago and the curiosity to watch this film just doubled after it won the Academy Award for Best Foreign language film in 2007. Earlier this year, I was disappointed for having missed this film at a film festival and finally the long wait culminated in the first week of June, 2009. The day I saw the film, I realised why this film figures in the Top 10 films of 2007 list of many critics.  It’s so damn brilliant, period! One of my friends even told me that a lot of people were clapping in the cinema hall when it was screened in Chennai, India. That’s an unusual and overwhelming reception for a foreign film especially in India.

Coming back to the movie, as the story unfolds Weisler is shown as a cold hearted, staunch supporter of Socialist-Communist Government who is hell bent on proving that the playwright has been plotting against the regime. But when he realises what the community of writers have been scheming he becomes increasingly sympathetic to their idelogies and even goes to the extent of protecting them from all forms of danger. One of the landmark scenes of the film has absolutely no dialogues. And all it has is Weisler paying attention to a Sonata which Dreyman plays on his piano when the latter comes to know about his friend, Jerska’s death. This scene will continue to haunt me for as long as I can remember this movie for several reasons, namely:

1. The music comes straight from Dreyman’s instant reaction upon receiving the news about his friend’s death. This melts Weisler’s heart who’s secretly listening to the music. You can look into his eyes and tell that he’s deeply affected.

2. The once impenetrable and cold hearted Weisler suddenly seems vulnerable.

3. This scene show that despite the mask we wear for the outside world, there’s certain amount of sympathy, heart & soul in all of us.

4. This single scene sets the tempo for what turns out to be a masterpiece.

5. Despite not having even a single line of dialogue this is probably one of the best scenes in the whole movie….all the emotions are brought to life by the remarkable performance of Weisler and Dreyman.

On the other hand, Dreyman who does have anti-socialist ideologies is wary about the government’s decision to ban his work. His dilemma is best explained in his dialogue with his lover, Christa-Maria on more than one occasion. Initially Dreyman doesn’t care about the Government’s decision is and proclaims that he will continue to write. But Christa Maria convinces him saying that his work needs people and their support and if his work is banned then there will not be any purpose to his life. Dreyman’s life and his ambitions change when his friend, Jerska commits suicide. With the help of few of his friends, Dreyman plans to write an article on the record  number of suicides of his countrymen and fellow writers which are marked as deaths due to natural causes in the government’s records. This number, as we are told, is only surpassed by those in Hungary. When his article is finally published, the survillence on him increases manifold. He slowly realises that Maria is having an affair with the minister much to his despair. But, the genuine lover he is, Dreyman understands  the circumstances under which Maria succumbs to the pressure. Twice in the course of the film, his house is ransacked by the agents of the government who eventually return empty handed. It’s only after the fall of GDR that Dreyman comes to know about Weisler’s existence and the extent to which the latter had helped him.

The film also throws some light on the tactics used by the erstwhile regime of GDR to subdue any information which individuals might use against the government. Thus form of censorship is both a bane and a boon at the same time to the writer’s community. Echoing one of the protogonists’ opinion, the censorship and the socio-economic conditions inspire the writers to lash out at the policies adopted by the government, in their writings but on the other hand there’s a definite possibility that their work will be banned for the same reason. The wire tapping, electronic and telephonic surveillance, coercion and submissive methods to extract information from the suspects are a nightmare. I can’t imagine the state of life under such circumstances and untill that happens probably I won’t understand what freedom means to me as an individual. Probably the very reason we write as we think is our quest for freedom and the fact that it exists for others to read is perhaps one of the best examples of freedom.

 It’s unfair to write about the actors/actresses and all other technicians associated with the movie. I fear that I might fall short of superlatives and adjectives. Calling them fantastically awesome will be an insult. Everything about them and the film is brilliant! If you are looking for a genuine masterpiece which reminds you about how beautiful our lives are, then “The Lives of Others” is the movie you should be watching. Because it’s not often when lives of others are so dreadful yet so full of hope and persistence.

Rent It, Buy It, Steal It, Download it….whatever you do, don’t miss this movie. It’s a well written story which has some terrific action brought to life by stupendous cinematography, background score, editing, screenplay and direction. Two thumbs up…if you call yourself a genuine movie buff and haven’t seen this movie, you definitely are missing a brave and beautiful film.

P.S: It’s doesn’t belong to the genre of thriller/suspense. But be prepared for some edge of the action sequences..:)

Photo courtesy-Wikipedia

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. sesha permalink
    June 18, 2009 6:26 pm

    I feel Pan’s Labyrinth is a better movie and i absolutely loved captain Vidal over Weisler. I felt academy was unfair. Since ‘Lives of Others’ is in a way reminiscient of the failed socialistic ideologies, the Academy showed it’s mocking love. Thanks for the post …

    • Hemanth permalink*
      June 18, 2009 7:05 pm

      @Sesha: You can’t compare “Lives of Others” and “Pan’s Labyrinth”! Both of them are probably some of the best pieces of work in their respective genre…yeah, it’s always the case that Oscar recognises film with a political undercurrent…probably that’s one reason why Lives of Others won it that year…:)

  2. Shankar S permalink
    June 18, 2009 6:30 pm

    This is simply amazing analysis or as they say great film appreciation. This film infact changed my life two years back and i went on to do a semiotic analysis on this. In these days of remakes nd rips it would be great if someone can go ahead making this film with a change in milieu (of course). If no film-maker is ready, i might do it myself.
    But talking about the post. Mr hemant you deserve 9 letters – B.R.I.L.L.I.A.N.T
    Hopin for more from you in the future.

    Shankar S

    • Hemanth permalink*
      June 18, 2009 7:13 pm

      @Shankar: Wow!! Tell me, what exactly do you do in Semiotic analysis?? I wish this movie falls into safe hands when it comes to making an Indian version…people are gonna add hopeless songs/item songs/slapstick comedy..in the end, they will just ruin everything that’s so damn good about this movie!..:)

      Thanks for the nice words…hope you have liked my blog and other posts..:)

  3. Shankar permalink
    June 19, 2009 11:08 am

    @ Hemanth
    Well, most times a film is believed to have multiple layers lying deep inside and semiotic analysis is all about understanding the symbolic representation (if used) scene by scene, shot by shot. So, every scene would have a denotation and a conotation. As the term is self-explainatory, the denotation is the first meaning and the conotation is the multiple web inside. Most times the approach is important, in the sense ‘On what aspect is the analysis done?’- Culturally? Psycologically? Cinematic reprsentations? etc… different aspects pertaining to the perception. All this actually comes under film-studies…in which this is perhaps the 1st chapter.

    Shankar S

    • Hemanth permalink*
      June 19, 2009 11:12 am

      @Shankar: Woah!!! Damn interesting…do they teach all that exclusively in Film Studies? Or can I find all this in books related to film studies as well?? (Please mail me if you have any pdf files or e-books).

      Between, have you come across this book “How To Read A Film?” by James Monaco…have been searching that for ages…any other recommendations you have?

  4. June 26, 2009 2:17 am

    Saved a couple of hours again. Nice review. After reading the review I feel I have watched the movie in 5 minutes. Great job again

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