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Empire Magazine Greatest Movies List - #329: The Lives of Others


Germany had it rough in the 20th century to put it mildly. World War I was quickly followed by World War II, after which the country was carved in two. East Germany was called the German Democratic Republic, but it was in fact a communist nation where people’s every move could be monitored if they were suspected of being against the party, not that that is so different from what modern governments do these days. “The Lives of Others” (2006) tells the story of a Stasi agent in 1984 assigned to monitor a writer to make sure he has no intention of writing anything subversive. However, as the agent listens in on their lives, he realizes there is more that meets the eyes, or in this case the ears.

The 2006 Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Language Film, “The Lives of Others” ended up on plenty of critic’s top ten lists that year. My taste for foreign movies can be hit or miss depending on the genre, but seeing as this one had practically universal love, I rented it a few months later after the Oscars. It was proof that sometimes it is worth renting a movie where you have to read subtitles, because this is one well-constructed and thought-provoking thriller. Sadly, the director Florian Henckle von Donnersmarck made his follow up with the Hollywood-produced thriller “The Tourist” in 2010, which had ten times the budget, but half the intelligence. Yet given his freshman effort, Donnersmarck could still bounce back.

His first and better film follows officer Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe), a dedicated government man who believes in following orders. When he is told to do surveillance on playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) he has no qualms with bugging his apartment and listening to the conversations he has with his girlfriend actress Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck). It is all in a day’s work and it is for the good of the party.

Except Wiesler soon realizes it has nothing to do with politics. Dreyman is a pro-communist writer and the orders to spy on him came from Bruno Hempf (Thomas Thieme), the minister of culture who has eyes on Dreyman’s girlfriend. He hopes to use whatever dirt Wiesler can uncover to push Dreyman out of the way and make his move.

This places Wiesler in a difficult position. As he sits by his desk listening to the conversations of Dreyman and Sieland he can tell they are both in love. Should he break the rules and somehow interfer? That would be an easy answer if Dreyman did not make things even more difficult by deciding to actually cause trouble. After one of his friends commits suicide, the communist writer decides to send an article to a West German magazine about East Germany’s high suicide rate, which would definitely count as subversive behavior. Now Wieseler is caught between his conscience and his duty as Dreyman’s fate rests in his hands.

Good thrillers do not rely on huge set pieces, but on tiny details that can affect the outcome of a well-conceived plan. In this case the small detail is the location of the typewriter used to write the article. East German typewriters are monitored, so Dreyman uses a typewriter smuggled from West Germany to do his writing.

If that typewriter if found, it is the end of Dreyman. The thrill is in knowing who will reveal its location. Wiesler of course knows everything, but is he willing to destroy two lives? Sieland herself finds herself in a moral quandary when the government starts pressuring her to reveal everything she knows about her boyfriend.

This is not a movie so much about spying, but about the effect spying has on both the people being spied on and the individual doing the spying.  

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