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Martina Gedeck as Christa-Maria Sieland
Ulrich Mühe as Captain Gerd Wiesler
Sebastian Koch as Georg Dreyman
Ulrich Tukur as Lieutenant Colonel Anton Grubitz
Thomas Thieme as Minister Bruno Hempf
Hans-Uwe Bauer as Paul Hauser
Volkmar Kleinert as Albert Jerska
Matthias Brenner as Karl Wallner
Thomas Arnold as Nowack
Ludwig Blochberger as Benedikt Lehmann
Werner Daehn as Stasi Einsatzleiter
Marie Gruber as Frau Meineke
Charly Hübner as Udo
Herbert Knaup as Gregor Hessenstein
Volker Michalowski as Schriftexperte
Hinnerk Schönemann as Stigler
Paul Maximilian Schüller as Junge mit Ball
Bastian Trost as Häftling 227
Directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
This fascinating look into the effects of the Stasi (State Police) on the East German arts community sets Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck apart as another German filmmaker to watch.
In East Germany, five years before the fall of the Berlin Wall, writer Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) and his actress girlfriend Christa-Maria (Martina Gedeck), have been put under surveillance by Minister Hempf (Thomas Thieme) who wants to find dirt on Dreyman in order to have the actress to himself. Assigned to surveillance duty is the loyal Captain Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe), a quiet, lonely man who suddenly has a chance of heart when he learns the truth behind his mission.
In 1949, George Orwell's novel "1984" predicted that people would be constantly watched by a "Big Brother" government. In this country, it's taken 20 extra years for the government to take a cue from the classic sci-fi novel, but the haunting resemblance between Orwell's book and the communist-controlled East German setting of Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's "The Lives of Others" makes one wonder how this time and place rife with stories has been left untapped for so long. In that sense, this film shows another side of Germany, one in which artists and writers had to be careful what they said or did, because they never knew who was watching or listening.
The story revolves around a playwright and his actress girlfriend who've won favor with the government for their patriotic work, and how that relationship is shattered by a high-ranking minister who wants the beautiful actress for himself. The agent for this plot is one Captain Wiesler, a patriotic police officer of the Stasi who takes his job interrogating and spying on suspected traitors very seriously. With no life outside the Stasi, Wiesler is a lonely and pathetic individual, but to him, this is a by-the-books surveillance job like any other. After long hours eavesdropping on the couple, Wiesler discovers something in Dreyman's words that moves him, to the point where he becomes protective of the relationship he has with Christa. Realizing that the actions he's taken for his government has destroyed many creative and artistic minds, Wiesler has to decide what to do when Dreyman starts writing a controversial article about the high suicide rate in the country with plans to publish it in the West.
This riveting debut from von Donnersmarck works on many levels, the first being its unique setting and the fact it deals with a subject matter that hasn't been seen in too many films. The clever way it transplants a classic love triangle storyline into this setting makes it even more interesting, though it also makes it harder to avoid comparisons to "1984." (It's very unlikely that setting the story in that particular year was an accident.)
This isn't your typical political thriller with edge-of-your-seat chills, but it's a beautifully written and superbly acted character drama with a subdued pace driven by three masterful performances by Sebastian Koch, Martina Gedeck and Ulrich Mühe. The latter is the most impressive as he takes a character that would normally be considered the bad guy and gets the audience to empathize with him every step of the way. Koch also gives a memorable performance, though its Gedeck's range of emotions as she's forced to do unspeakable things to protect their relationship and her acting career that leaves the most lasting impression.
The film's tension builds as Wiesler gets deeply involve in the couple's lives while desperately trying to keep his superiors from learning of his defiance of orders. What starts out as a character drama leads to a climactic third act as Christa has to pay the price for turning her back on the minister's advances and Wiesler finds himself in between a rock and a hard place as things spiral beyond his control. Even if the movie has already gone on a bit too long by this point, it leads to a number of indispensable epilogues showing how the characters fare after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The film would not have been quite as powerful without them, but it might have been wise to cut out a bit of earlier exposition and gotten to the resolution sooner.
The Bottom Line:
It's easy to forgive the slow pace and excessive length of Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's stunning debut, as he adds his name to the list of exemplary German filmmakers who've found riveting source material in the history of a country that's remained a mystery to many Americans for far too long.