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"The Lives of Others"

Directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck.
Written by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck.
Starring Ulrich Mühe, Sebastian Koch, Martina Gedeck and Ulrich Tukur.
Release Year:  2006
Review Date:  3/7/07


"The Lives of Others" won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film a couple of weeks ago, so it must be pretty good at something.  I was surprised that it was pretty good at just about everything; although it would be easy to make this film out to be a German version of a cross between "The Conversation" and the HBO series "The Wire", it's got a bit of history behind it thanks to its timeframe and the solid handling of the subject matter.

In 1984, East Germany built the "Stasi", which employed literally hundreds of thousands of cops, interrogators, informants and administrative staff to only do one thing: spy on other East Germans, especially those in positions of society that might be susceptible to aiding and/or abetting the West German people.  In the film, one such individual like this is Captain Weisler (Ulrich Mühe), who is very good at finding ways to break down suspects during 30-to-50-hour interrogations at local prisons and detention centers; his boss, Grubitz (Ulrich Tukur), is just months away from a promotion that could make him the top dog at the Stasi and he's not going to blow his chance to make his mark when a government minister (Thomas Thieme) asks Grubitz to spy on a playwright named Dreyman (Sebastian Koch), who may or may not have connections to West German spies, journalists, and anything in-between.  Grubitz puts Weisler, his top man, on the job, so after the Stasi bugs Dreyman's apartment, Weisler spends the next several weeks monitoring the activities of Dreyman's personal life, including his relationship with the actress in his current play, a woman named Christa (Martina Gedeck).

"The Lives of Others" is a quiet film, built around watching Weisler go about his grim task of getting to know his subject, the subject's habits, and ways to implicate him in crimes of national security...and, because Weisler has almost no personality when we first meet him, it is really interesting to watch him develop ever so slightly to become the kind of man that he clearly disapproves of, given things you pick up in how he teaches classes on how to interrogate subjects or his extreme lack of a personal life or how he speaks to a young child in an elevator one day who claims to hate everything that the Stasi stands for.  But, partnered with how the playwright Dreyman wants to make a difference but wants to clean up the relationships in his life first, you get a twosome that is hardly fire and ice but mostly Cheerios and Honey Nut's just different enough to be technically different, but in many ways, the men are just going about their established roles in society, but one of them is taking slight steps to get away from a life of comfort and start a revolution...from the comfort of his own home, if any of this makes sense to you.

What will make sense is that "The Lives of Others" is buoyed by really great performances by our three main leads, Mühe, Koch and Gedeck.  It almost sounds like a joke, but I love that all of our supporting characters--right down to the two-bit, 250-pound hooker that Weisler hires for a moment of stress relief--look extremely German, almost stereotypically German (it's no coincidence that the Grubitz character has that great Hitler mustache).  It just sets the mood perfectly for working with extremely efficient, humorless, unsexy characters who take a long time to break into, in terms of their feelings.  I really loved this tidbit about the movie.  The soundtrack is a bit repetitive but it works as a mood-setter; the production looks great and even though the film runs a bit too long it's filled with some things that make you think even as you are putting on your coat for what you think is the final ending of the movie.

Highly recommended--I still think that "Pan's Labyrinth" should have won the Oscar in this category but this is a strong second place to me.

Rating:  $9.50 Show


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Bellview Rating System:

"Opening Weekend":  This is the highest rating a movie can receive.  Reserved for movies that exhibit the highest level of acting, plot, character development, setting...or Salma Hayek.  Not necessarily in that order. 

"$X.XX Show":  This price changes each year due to the inflation of movie prices; currently, it is the $9.50 Show.  While not technically perfect, this is a movie that will still entertain you at a very high level.  "Undercover Brother" falls into this category; it's no "Casablanca", but you'll have a great time watching.  The $9.50 Show won't win any Oscars, but you'll be quoting lines from the thing for ages (see "Office Space"). 

"Matinee":  An average movie that merits no more than a $6.50 viewing at your local theater.  Seeing it for less than $9.50 will make you feel a lot better about yourself.  A movie like "Blue Crush" fits this category; you leave the theater saying "That wasn't too, did you see that Lakers game last night?" 

"Rental":  This rating indicates a movie that you see in the previews and say to your friend, "I'll be sure to miss that one."  Mostly forgettable, you couldn't lose too much by going to Hollywood Video and paying $3 to watch it with your sig other, but you would only do that if the video store was out of copies of "Ronin."  If you can, see this movie for free.  This is what your TV Guide would give "one and a half stars." 

"Hard Vice":  This rating is the bottom of the barrel.  A movie that only six other human beings have witnessed, this is the worst movie I have ever seen.  A Shannon Tweed "thriller," it is so bad as to be funny during almost every one of its 84 minutes, and includes the worst ending ever put into a movie.  Marginally worse than "Cabin Boy", "The Avengers" or "Leonard, Part 6", this rating means that you should avoid this movie at all costs, or no costs, EVEN IF YOU CAN SEE IT FOR FREE!  (Warning:  strong profanity will be used in all reviews of "Hard Vice"-rated movies.)

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All material by Justin Elliot Bell for SMR/Bellview/ except where noted
© 1999-2009 Justin Elliot Bell This site was last updated 01/08/09