A Review of Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s “The Lives of Others”

To Know Everything…, 26 February 2007
David H. Schleicher from New Jersey, USA

Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s “The Lives of Others” is a searing portrait of East Germany in the early 1980’s before the fall of the Berlin Wall. The era of paranoia, suppression of free speech, and total state control of everything and everyone is masterfully displayed here in the intertwining stories of the Stasi police officer, his morally questionable superiors, and the actress and playwright they are spying on. Once again, the German people’s love affair with authoritarianism and meticulously detailed records is featured here as the most intimate details of these people’s lives are examined and we see the quiet tragedies of their everyday life stemming from their bizarrely married desires for freedom and attempts to rationalize their place and survive in the State and the Socialist movement. Superb acting, an excellent music score, and no-frills direction keep the film taut, sparse, and utterly transfixing in its evolving melodrama.

On an obvious surface level, “The Lives of Others” is the most psychologically astute look at voyeurism since Hitchcock’s “Rear Window.” What makes the film compelling in its slow build up of tension and suspense, is that it is working on so many other levels. It can also be viewed as an allegory for the art of film making (or stage directing and writing) and the craft of acting, as we see the fractured psyche of the Stasi police officer–much like the blacklisted director character who commits suicide– who so desperately wants to intervene and direct the troubling lives of those he surveys (the writer and actress–both wrestling with their own internal demons as their lives soon become not their own). So while it serves well as a timeless psychological case study into such minds, desires, and paranoia, it also functions as a very timely discussion about how much interference a government has the right to run into the lives of ordinary citizens.

“The Lives of Others” suffers from one major flaw, which will not be discussed at length for fear of giving away some of its intricate plot twists and theatrical climaxes. In the end, the film misses the final beat as it runs about ten or fifteen minutes too long past what would’ve been two serviceable and profound endings to arrive at a series of closing scenes that are all too pat. The first two hours were so rife with dramatic irony and subtle tension, that it’s a shame the film rolls on beyond what would’ve been a sublimely ironic and stark conclusion (that arrives at a most pivotal moment in world history). Still, there was so much multi-layered and engrossing minutiae in those first two hours that the film’s ultimate brilliance can not be denied because of one false note.

Originally Published on the Internet Movie Database