So often in historical dramas, the emphasis is on one of two things. The first of these is a significant event: a heroic battle; a horrific crime; a heartwarming romance. The second is an individual; biopics are seemingly an obsession for filmmakers wanting to prove or demonstrate that they have the talent for deep, intelligent creations. The Lives of Others contains both of these things; the build-up to the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the relationship of a romantic playwright and actress fighting to keep their love and their livelihoods strong in a artless, indeed soulless, society. This though is not what makes the picture stand out. Whereas usually the focus in these sorts of films is on high drama and raging emotions fitted into an accurate but often bland exterior, this film seems to have the setting as its central focus and how this works its way into the rest of the film is a marvel to watch.
1984 in the GDR (East Germany) is immediately presented as grey, cold and imposing. The streets are dead, the skylines are bleak and the people are all hushed and afraid. There is no high drama in this world as there simply couldn’t be. The constant threat of the Stasi (The East German secret police) means life in this world had to be contained, rigid and stone-faced. That is what this film does so well; it brings this world completely to life by making it as lifeless as it was at the time. The world that is created is what shapes everything around it; the character’s actions and emotions are shaped by this society; whether to abide to it or to struggle against it.
Ulrich Muhe plays the central role of a Stasi Captain assigned by a senior politician to spy on the artistic lovers for reasons of ‘national security’. What comes of his investigation is not only a grave portrayal of abhorrent state corruption and the emptiness of the East German dream but an incredibly heartfelt insight into how little these people were allowed to feel. Some critics of this film have questioned its apparent easiness on portraying the cruelty of the East German state. Such violent set-pieces would have been at odds with the subtle canvas this film seems to seek to create. The cruelty of this society is shown, not through its physical brutality, but through its unrelenting mission to terrorise and strangle its people both emotionally and psychologically.
Muhe himself is terrific in a performance of a sadly shortened lifetime; he passed away from stomach cancer barely a year after this film was completed. His fragile facade of calculated professionalism is broken beautifully when he weeps listening in to the playwright playing a song to honour an old friend. He blends together the coldness his character would have needed and the emotional realisation he and many others desperately needed to make not just a wonderfully deep and complex character but a symbol of human life in this society. The way he tries to just embrace a prostitute he has hired for the night is soul destroying; that is as close to companionship and comfort as he as ever been. The cast around Muhe are equally exceptional. Martina Gedeck is heartbreaking as Christa-Maria Sigland, the actress, and Thomas Thieme is superb as the perverted, arrogant minister whose personal reasons for ordering the investigation is suitably depraved. The playwright’s last remark to the now-former minster after the Wall has collapsed; “to think, people like you used to run a country” stays in the mind long after the film ends.
A wonderful portrayal of human compassion and emotional complexity stifled by a world of hopelessness, The Lives of Others is subtle, brilliant paced and very well acted. A really remarkable piece of cinema.
Worrall’s Reel Review is a fortnightly film review column covering the lastest films as well as a selection of slightly older ones. On occasion, readers will be treated to extra reviews of paticular premiers. Tune in every other Friday for the lastest installment.