The Lives of Others – DVD Review

Available at Amazon.com

Directed by
Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck

Cast:
Martina Gedeck … Christa-Maria Sieland
Ulrich Mühe … Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler
Sebastian Koch … Georg Dreyman
Ulrich Tukur … Oberstleutnant Anton Grubitz
Thomas Thieme … Minister Bruno Hempf
Hans-Uwe Bauer … Paul Hauser
Volkmar Kleinert … Albert Jerska
Matthias Brenner … Karl Wallner
Charly Hübner … Udo
Herbert Knaup … Gregor Hessenstein
Bastian Trost … Häftling 227
Marie Gruber … Frau Meineke


The Movie:

While there were a few upsets at this past year’s Academy Awards, I don’t think any of them surprised me as much as The Lives of Others beating out Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth for Best Foreign Film. Pan’s had cleaned up all night previous to the award, and when they called out The Lives of Others at the ceremony, you could kind of feel the air in the room get sucked out in surprise. Turns out, an even bigger surprise comes after you’ve seen The Lives of Others, and you realize just how much the film deserved the award.

Set in East Germany in 1984, the film takes what could have just been an interesting, but cold Political Thriller and instead takes it inward and makes it very personal. Though this is only his first time behind a camera, Director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck brilliantly establishes the time period and setting, showing the unrelenting power of the Communist government at the time. The depiction of East Germany reminded me of some Orwellian future in which people’s privacy was non-existent and officials could listen in to whatever they wanted to in your life, and yet this was a real world those people lived in.

We’re introduced early on in the picture to Colonel Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe), the most dedicated officer of the Stasi, the East German Secret Police. Wiesler is a man beyond reproach, and his methods are so effective and ruthless that his department even has him teaching classes on interrogation at the University. We’re given a demonstration of these techniques early on in the film, as he makes a man confess seemingly by pure will. Neither raising his hand or his voice, he quietly breaks a man’s spirit, showing the true power he possesses within him.

Given an assignment to discover whether a popular writer has become a dissident, Wiesler installs himself in the roof of the artist’s building, hoping to find evidence that the man is not as he seems. What we find instead is that the writer, Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) is outwardly still patriotic at home, and that he is a passionate man, who believes in helping his friends and deeply loving the woman in his life. It is at this point though, that the film really manages to surprise with its elegance and emotional potency.


You see, while the film is an amazing statement against fascism and supporting people’s rights to privacy and free speech, the movie’s biggest underlying theme is that of the need for human contact. This especially goes for Wiesler himself, who starts to not only observe, but secretly participate in these people’s lives because his own life is shown to be empty and sterile, as he knows only his work and his beliefs. The only love he has ever known has been for his work, but witnessing how these people live, he seems to need more.

Ulrich Mühe’s performance has to be seen to be believed. Mühe’s face never goes in extreme directions and he never chews up scenery. This is a performance of such quiet power due to its subtlety and expert craft. A scene in which he sleeps with a prostitute brings real sadness to his face, as she can’t give him what he actually needs which is emotional contact and response. As Wiesler starts to realize the only beings he really knows are the people he watches, our sympathies for him start to change dramatically.

As the subjects of his investigation, Sebastian Koch and Martina Gedeck are also positively brilliant as Writer Georg Dreyman and his girlfriend Christa-Maria. This is a relationship that seems so real and full of fervor, but at the same time filled with real problems. Christa-Maria is unfaithful to Dreyman, but the person she is involved with is a Ministry Official, so it seems she only does so, so she can keep her prominent position as an actress. Dreyman keeps his own secrets about his political beliefs away from his loved one, but does so to shield her in case he is discovered. These secrets eat at their love, and there is a sense of real emotion and sorrow within their scenes together.


I love the charismatic performance Sebastian Koch gives as Dreyman, a man who takes his strength from those around him, but must often keep things from them. He’s secretly a man that feels strongly about the way his country is and how things are going, but needs the support of his loved ones to be able to actually speak his mind in his writings. This again, isn’t a scenery chewing turn, but a performance of mood and delicacy, which makes him feel all the more real.

With these three leading the way, Director von Donnersmarck is able to weave his ensemble together for scenes of stunning power. A sequence in which Georg, unknowingly with the help of Wiesler, secretly catches Christa-Maria with another man, is wrenching to behold, as even in just her walk you can see Gedeck bring fourth the shame and sadness over her betrayal. Wordless, with Koch placed in a doorway and covered in shadow, you can feel the melancholy take you over as the scene proceeds, and its climax is simple heartbreak.

Evoking the feelings of other masterpieces such as The Conversation and Army of Shadows, The Lives of Others is an incredibly memorable experience that really stays with you after the credits have rolled. This is cinema that doesn’t require fireworks of violence to get across real human drama, just direction and acting of precision and real passion. The only disappointment I found in watching The Lives of Others is that I hadn’t seen it soon enough to really appreciate its Oscar triumph.


The DVD:


The Video
A flawless transfer from Sony on this disc as the movie is free from any debris, and the picture is clean and bright for the entire movie. The film is presented in Anamorphic Widescreen with an aspect ratio of 2.35:1

The Audio
The Audio track is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 and is in German. This is also quite good, and dialogue is never drowned out by score or background noise.


SPECIAL FEATURES:


Audio Commentary by Director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck -Nice track from the director here, as he keeps up the little tidbits about and inspiration for scenes throughout the entire movie. There’s a really interesting section of the track where he talks about a long bout with depression he had, and he actually places the scene of Christa-Maria’s betrayal on the same street as the apartment he had at the time. By taking little autobiographical feelings and putting them into this movie, he was able to get just a little more feeling from it.

The Making of THE LIVES OF OTHERS – This is a good Featurette, featuring interviews with the stars and cast of the movie. This goes about 20 minutes or so and is interesting, but not essential.

Deleted Scenes with Optional Commentary – The best feature on the disc, these scenes are all FANTASTIC, and as good as anything in the film on their own, but within the context of the movie made the film feel too long. All of these scenes though are terrific and are well worth a look.

Interview with Director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck – This is a 30 minute interview with the director and covers a lot of the things he talks about in the commentary track. I especially love the section where he talks about Ulrich Mühe and how Mühe was actually from East Germany and was the subject of Stasi observation from the age he was 15 to the time the Berlin Wall fell. Though some of this interview is repeated in the commentary, it’s still very insightful and entertaining.

Trailers – You get a ton of trailers on this disc, such as The Jane Austen Book Club, Sleuth, Paprika, and many others.

The DVD Lounge’s Ratings for The Lives of Others
CATEGORY
RATING
(OUT OF 10)
THE MOVIE

10
THE VIDEO

10
THE AUDIO

10
THE EXTRAS

7.5
REPLAY VALUE

10
OVERALL
9.5
(NOT AN AVERAGE)

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