BP’s Top 100 Movie Challenge #57: The Lives of Others, by Sarah Brinks
I decided to undertake a movie challenge in 2017. This seemed like a good way to see some classic movies that I have unfortunately never seen. The Battleship Pretension Top 100 list provided such a challenge.
The Lives of Others was one of my favorite films of 2006. When I first saw The Lives of Others I knew I had just seen something special, I was blown away by it. I was very happy to revisit this film for the Battleship Pretension top 100 movies challenge.
Ulrich Mühe as Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler is the secret sauce of what makes this film so moving and successful. Mühe brings a palpable gravitas to the film. He manages to express a vast range of emotions with minor expressions and with body language. His shift from loyal Stasi agent to sympathetic ally is understandable as are the lengths he goes to protect his targets: Georg and Christa-Maria. When we meet Wiesler he is teaching Stasi interrogation techniques to his students and you have no doubt in your mind that he is a loyal communist. By the end of the film he is transformed into a sympathetic hero figure who sacrificed everything to save a playwright and an actress.
The power of the Stasi as well as the rampant corruption are on full display in the film. You see how carefully everyone must tread in order to try and live normal lives and the extremes they have to go to in order to make art. In the case of Georg and Christa-Maria, the Minister of culture wants Christa-Maria so he has Georg investigated. It is made crystal clear to Wiesler that he has to find some dirt on Georg “or else”. Wiesler, of course, finds more than enough to have Georg locked away but by that time he has switched to Georg’s point of view. While the Minister of Culture is quite clearly a bad guy, Wiesler and his friend/boss Anton Gurbitz fall more into a grey area. Gurbitz is a devoted party member but he isn’t against bending the rules or letting things slide when they don’t serve his purpose. This is a part of history that I have a limited knowledge of and I learned a lot about the GDR from this film.
Martina Gedeck plays Christa-Maria Sieland, a famous actress and girlfriend of the playwright Georg Dreyman. Gedeck’s performance is nearly as nuanced as Mühe’s. She has to play the artist and devoted girlfriend but she also having a begrudging affair with the Minister of culture in order to get certain amenities. She hates the fact that she has to make those sacrifices but she is doing what she must to survive. We learn the true depth of her regret when she commits suicide after she thinks she has betrayed Georg. We also see the true depth of Wiesler’s betrayal of the GDR when hides the typewriter George had used to write an anti-communist article.
The cat and mouse aspect of the film is very effective. Wiesler is a master manipulator and tricks Georg in finding out about Christa- Maria’s affair as well manipulating the system he knows so well into not seeing Georg’s actual guilty actions. One of the best scenes is when Georg and his friends set up Wiesler by making him believe they are sneaking a comrade to the West. Wiesler almost falls for it but decides, last minute, not to turn them in. That lulls them into a false sense of security that George is not being observed, and they use his flat to plan their anti-communist article. The near misses and bold deceptions keep the tension in the film at a peak and keep the audience on their toes.
I loved this film the first time I saw it and I loved it again on this rewatch. The costume designer and set designers both do a fantastic job giving the film the look of 1980’s Germany. Director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck and cinematographer Hagen Bogdanski also firmly set us in a world when the walls literally have ears and you never know when someone is watching and listening. The film is an intense exploration of a difficult time in German history and a story of both the government and artists living and dying together.
I’ve decided to rate each film using an arbitrary scale based on the board game Battleship (lowest: Destroyer, Submarine, Cruiser, Battleship, highest: Carrier)
The Lives of Others ranking: Carrier