(2006, Directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, 137
BY DAN BUSKIRK
When the subject arises of the U.S. Patriot Act, which allows government increased powers of surveillance, there’s always someone who argues, “Why should anyone care, unless they’re hiding something?” For those without the imagination to conceive of how a Surveillance Society
invites abuse, German director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck has crafted a very patient and engrossing thriller that slowly turns the screws of tension on a character under complete scrutiny. It’s successful enough to make anyone’s inner paranoiac wiggle in his seat.
The title crawl mentions that in 1984 the East German government’s Stasi employed a staff of 100,000, who in turn had 200,000 informants keeping their eyes out for anyone who would dissent against the ruling German Democratic Republic. To even question the humanity of the system is reason for arrest as Weisler, an expert agent played by the Ben Kingsley-esque Ulrich Muhe, informs a suspect.
Can Americans even imagine the atmosphere that would engulf a population if every time someone had a few drinks at a party and bashed Bush — or even the D.M.V. — you could be whisked off to a 48-hour interrogation? This very real totalitarianism is communicated by The Lives of Others — quiet images, all bathed in grays and blues and shot in endless overcast skies by cinematographer Hagen Bogdanski. Slowly, this pall sinks into your bones like an icy chill.
The action revolves around Weisler’s latest assignment, the surveillance of Georg (Sebastian Koch, with the lanky upper class cockiness of a young William Hurt), a popular but apolitical playwright whose investigation was only initiated because a government minister has become smitten with the playwright’s girlfriend. The film sneaks along the beautifully decrepit streets of East Germany in pursuit of Georg, but ultimately becomes the story of the sad and emptied Weisler and how he is ultimately humanized by studying his quarry.
Since winning the Oscar, Lives has gained real momentum at the box office — a nice surprise for a film that works as a thriller while maintaining its stately, old-fashioned pace. Because this is a film about observers and the observed, The Lives of Others stays true to its subjects by letting us quietly study their private moments. So when the plot line begins to twist, the emotions hit deeper.
Similar to Cuaron’s recent Children of Men , this vivid picture of a Surveillance Society feels like quasi-fantasy, bringing to mind the horrors of ?70s sci-fi films, but van Donnersmarck’s film arrives at a post-Wall conclusion that subtly channels the triumph of Big-F Freedom. If The Lives of Others is as currently relevant as some reviewers have hinted, let’s hope that it is telling us that such laws created by The USA Patriot Act aren’t intractable and can in fact, be abolished.