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Das Leben des Anderen

Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen) is the must-see foreign film of the moment. It's an unusually satisfying melodrama, and for that reason I don't want to say much about what happens. The setting is East Berlin in 1984. Georg (Sebastian Koch), the GDR's best playwright, a loyal socialist but read in the West, lives with his leading lady, Christa-Maria (Martina Gedeck) in a battered but presentable apartment. The minister of culture (Thomas Thieme) gets the hots for Christa-Maria, and seeks to have Georg discredited. This is where the Stasi, the secret police, some into the picture. Captain Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe) is directed by his superior, Grubitz (Ulrich Tukur) to find something that will incriminate Georg. An elaborate surveillance system is set up in the attic of Georg's building.

Everything about this film is well done. The acting is superb. The trio at the center, Christa-Maria and Sebastian, and the surveilling Wiesler, are so beautifully yoked together that it's hard to believe that Georg and Wiesler never meet. The contrast between the two men could not be more pointed. Georg is rakish and tousled, a very handsome man who's beginning to show his age as he begins to suffer doubts about the regime. Wiesler is lean, close-shaven, and utterly self-possessed; for all intents and purposes, his eyes are the only moving parts of his face.

The East Germans appear to have perfected techniques of psychological torture. The idea was to break souls, not bodies. Ten months of solitary confinement was sufficient to silence difficult voices. The film works along parallel lines. There is very little violence - some sofa cushions are ripped open with a knife during a search - but there is a great deal of dread. In some films, Georg and Christa-Maria would experience a vague uneasiness about hinted wiretaps, but creating unease is not the director's objective. Georg is quite cockily sure that he's not being watched, while we know just how wrong he is. Right up until the end, he has no idea of how vulnerable he is to find himself serving a career-ending prison term. This isn't because he's cocky, but because he's decent.

So, we soon discover, is Wiesler. As the dénouement approaches, we find ourselves rooting for him even as we continue to root for Georg. At first suspicious of the playwright, Wiesler is disgusted to find out that his investigation is motivated not by state security but by ministerial concupiscence. Brought up to honor the socialist objectives of the GDR, both men realize that they have become agents of an utterly self-serving power structure that will stamp out goodness with more relish than it punishes vice. At one point, Georg plays something called "Sonata for a Good Man," a melancholy piece of music written for the film by Gabriel Yared. There is reason to wonder why the film was not named for the sonata. (March 2007)

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