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


One comment

  1. Dear Mr. Schleicher, Am I assuming correctly that the major flaw you found in the film was the making of a second-rate hero out of Captain Wiesler, when he could never really have been forgiven for his obsessive voyeurism? (The real hero, of course, was Krista Maria.) Yes, it was he who ordered the surveillance, not his superiors, but it was he who let his quarry off the hook in the end, and one supposes the writer’s dedication of “Sonata for Some Good Men” was a kind of poetic justice for a shadowy figure who was seen as redeeming himself.
    I found this to be a touching irony and I feel irony adds a powerful resonance to a literary work of art. Two examples that come to mind vividly are Manuel Puig’s “Kiss of the Spider Woman” and to some extent “The House of Sand and Fog.” If there is a criticism to make regarding the epilogue in “The Lives of Others” it was the belated undoing of the wiretaps in the artist’s apartment, an act seen as anti-climactic and probably a paid for task assumed by the government of the reunified Germany if requested. Yes, there are some questions as to the final elements in the plot, but we must remember this was a film about recent history and Donnersmarck wanted to complete the picture with the thought that “1984” is behind Germany and let us go on knowing as much about the truth of that era as possible.

    blc, thanks for your thoughts on the film. You bring up some good points. I will definately be viewing the film again when it is released on DVD and fully plan to re-evaluate my thoughts on the aforementioned “false note.” – DHS

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