Saturday, March 3, 2007

THE LIVES OF OTHERS - Winner of the 2006 Oscar for best foreign film, "The Lives of Others" wasn't even released in Portland and most other cities until late February 2007, so I wasn't able to consider it for my 2006 list. Although I don't think it surpasses my two favorite 2006 films, "Water" and "Pan's Labyrinth," which were nominated in the same category, it definitely deserves to be mentioned in the same breath. It is a brilliant piece of work and may well end up on my 2007 list.

Set in the German Democratic Republic in 1984, five years before the fall of the Berlin Wall, the film begins with a portrait of a cold-blooded Stasi officer, Gerd Wiesler, who is a master at surveillance and painstaking interrogation, unswerving in his dedication to ferreting out enemies of the state. His superior, a more politically wired and opportunistic former classmate who has consequently risen more quickly, invites him to attend a theater performance with him at the behest of the Minister of Culture. Wiesler is less interested in the play than in the playwright, Georg Dreyman, a handsome and, to his mind, arrogant sort who lives with the beautiful lead actress, Christa-Maria Sieland. Wiesler instantly distrusts Dreyman and suggests they begin surveiling him--an idea that his superior dismisses until he discerns that such surveillance is exactly what the Minister of Culture has in mind. The superior seizes the opportunity for political advancement by setting the incomparable Wiesler on the task.

Up to this point, the story seems like a fairly typical Cold War thriller. But as Wielser begins the surveillance, we discover that he is not merely a mindless follower, but a true believer; he is motivated by dedication to the Republic's stated ideals. And though he has up to this point justified destroying people in the service of those ideals, listening in on the lives of Dreyman and his lover awakens something in him. Though neither of his subjects is a hero, Wiesler cannot help but be struck by the beauty and goodness that reside in them--in their work, in their friendships, in their love for each other, imperfect though it is. That goodness (expressed at one point by a piece of music, written for the film, titled "Sonata for a Good Man") compels Wiesler just at the same time that he cannot escape the recognition that his work really serves only the greed and opportunism of his superiors, who are actually betraying the ideals to which he has dedicated himself. We witness a barely perceptible but profound shift in him as he hears Dreyman, playing the sonata in elegy to a blacklisted director friend, commenting that no truly good person can listen to the music, really listen to it, and not be affected by it.

The film patiently unfolds a story about the transformative effect of beauty and goodness observed in others, anchored by three especially stunning performances. Dreyman is successful because he has played it safe, even while some of his less careful colleagues have suffered--but he is not as callow as he first appears; he is attentive to those he loves, and their suffering eventually changes him and deepens his resolve. Christa-Maria is beautiful and talented, but far more vulnerable than she would be in a free society and, though possessed of a conscience, she does not possess the strength of character that life in the G.D.R. demands. Most stunning is Weisler, utterly self-contained and impassive, virtually encased in the concrete of his convictions yet managing to convey subtle yet seismic shifts in his character. We are told (cynically, through a particularly odious character) that Dreyman's work expresses faith in the capacity of humans to change; that capacity is depicted here as an outgrowth of the yearning that makes us human and of connectedness with the lives of others. [In German; winner of the 2006 Academy Award for best foreign film and listed on at least five 2006 best-10 lists; still in theaters]

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