As dull as the Oscars are, I've been impressed with the annual bestowal of an utterly random award to some performer or film that had no business being nominated. Think of such inscrutable honors as Best Picture statues for Shakespeare in Love and Crash or a Best Actor award for Roberto Benigni. This year, the curveball Oscar hurtled past Guillermo Del Toro's astonishing Gothic fable Pan's Labyrinth and plunked the German-made The Lives of Others for Best Foreign Language Film. While it is a surprise choice, The Lives of Others is a worthy one.
The film is set in East Germany during the ominous Orwellian year 1984, when as many as one in 50 East Germans was some kind of informant for the country's state security (Stasi) organization. Stasi's alleged mission was "to know everything" -- about everyone -- and know it at any cost, even if that meant blacklisting dissidents, staging endless interrogations of innocent suspects, or arranging mysterious disappearances. Our window into this world is Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe), a master interrogator and part-time Stasi instructor with a fierce commitment to his job. Muhlke characterizes Wiesler as simultaneously firm and meek, officious and deferential; he's like Gene Hackman's wiretapper in The Conversation if he had grown up on the wrong side of the Berlin Wall.
Alas, Wiesler is an idealist who sees his comrades embrace the sybaritism of unchecked power with too much smugness, so he is primed for a change in attitudes when he begins to spy on playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) and his actress girlfriend Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck). As he listens to their conversations, Wiesler develops a voyeuristic kinship with Dreyman and Sieland -- half out of concern and, it seems, half out of some kind of sexual jealousy. As Dreyman prepares an article exposing East German suicide statistics, Wiesler risks his career and his previous beliefs to protect them.
Although writer/director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck eventually wrong-foots his narrative 90 minutes in, his film sustains a mood of everyday dread and paranoia, and he knows how to engineer effective, low-key suspense sequences. His chief stylistic signature is the repeated use of languorous pans that parallel the insidious invasion of Stasi surveillance into citizens' lives. Sadly, his cast is more uneven than his camera. Aside from Gedeck's dark, compelling performance, the conscientious dissidents in the film are dullards as bland as their home furnishings.
Von Donnersmarck is much more interested in the film's villains anyway. With his average-guy looks, slightly ill-fitting suits, and slighter mustache, Wiesler's school chum and superior Lieutenant Grubitz (Ulrich Tukur) is a grinning, chilling corporate climber. But Grubitz's smiling menace pales compared to the actions of his boss, Minister Hempf. As Hempf, Thomas Thieme is a man with extinguished eyes and the guttural mumble of those who never need to speak up. His corpulent, defeated gait gives the impression that his body's business of breathing and walking is the responsibility of some absentee flunky, and he's offended that he has to do it himself.
Even though he sets the film's plot in motion, Hempf occupies relatively little screen time. Yet he hovers over the proceedings like an all-seeing security camera, and he survives the 1989 fall of Communism and the Berlin Wall to reappear near the film's end. At a theatrical performance, Hempf chides and taunts an older, sadder Dreyman, softly informing the playwright that his place was bugged. As the film shows Dreyman's own artistic reconciliation with his East German past, the minister's face still lingers, nearly blotting out the final, reconciliatory freeze-frame. Some ghosts aren't that easy to banish.
The Lives of Others
Opening Friday, March 16th