I invite you to cast your minds back a couple of months to Cinemafool’s thoughts about the Oscars, in particular the “Best Foreign Language Film” section. The winner was Das Leben der Anderen, aka “The Lives of Others”, and my initial response was “Never heard of it. How can some random German film win when the infinitely better El Laberinto del Fauno was in the same category?” Well, now I can change my statement. Let’s see what it’ll change to…
The Lives of Others plonks itself into early 80’s East Germany and focuses on their ‘Stasi’ - the Secret Police. What a fun bunch they are. Rigorously spying on people, monitoring politically rebellious behaviour and delivering punishing interrogations. But when one of their best, Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Muhe) is assigned to watch over acclaimed writer Georg (Sebastian Koch), the training goes out the window.
Gerd settles himself into monitoring Georg’s every move and soon becomes fascinated with his life. And why not - Georg is a fabulous writer, in love with a beautiful actress and boasting an impressive head of hair. Compare that to Gerd (and there are some great comparisons in this film) with his grey apartment, empty life and skeletal dome, and it’s no wonder he starts to act a little strange. But when Georg’s actions start to veer away from acceptable, Gerd’s integrity is tested.
Though quite understated in places, there are some lovely little moments in this film as you watch Gerd tracking his targets every motion throughout the house, occasionally having an impact. It’s easy to see how involved Gerd can become. It must be like a real life game of The Sims. At one point he listens in to a tender moment between Georg and his lady, trying to mimic their embrace. We then see his later attempt to recreate such closeness (a prostitute with quite frankly dangerous breasts - sorry to fly off the subject and tone, but seriously they could very easily smother a man.) Such sad yet amusing moments are brought to life by Ulrich Muhe, his mostly silent performance summing up every emotion with a crestfallen grace.
At a chunky 137 minutes, there’s huge potential for this film to become an arduous monster. It’s German, it’s ugly 80s politics. It’s a recipe for woe. Long, important woe. But thankfully the film flies by, with touches of humour, intrigue and gentle tragedy. However, I did feel that Gerd’s change of heart was brought on a little too easily, and that perhaps the obsession side of things could have been explored even more. Though I enjoyed the film, it didn’t leave an enormous impression on me. It didn’t shake up my emotions too much, or make me think too deeply (apart from “crikey I’m glad it’s not the 80s and I don’t live in East Germany”.) It didn’t grab me by the head and shake me around. Like Pan did.
Not that I want all films to shake my brain about - if that was the case I’d not likely survive weekly cinema trips. But for an Oscar winning, Pan-beating film I expected a little bit more. So to rewrite my initial Oscar reaction: “The Lives of Others. I have heard of it. Good film, well crafted. But shouldn’t have won when the more striking Pan’s Labyrinth was in the same category.”
For using a fascinating subject and setting but still retaining a sense of pace and plot, I’m awarding one point. And for making 137 minutes float by with strong performances, I’m giving it another. Thus, The Lives of Others makes a CF2. But this proves that the Oscars are wrong, and I am, as ever, utterly and completely correct.