I must preface my review by stating that I am a huge fan of Guillermo del Toro’s 2006 fantasy/drama Pan’s Labyrinth, what I felt was an unsurpassed motion picture experience sure to be a lock for Best Foreign Film. That is, until I saw the German political thriller The Lives of Others, an incredible film that’s now available on Blu-ray Disc.
Lives takes place in East Germany, 1984. Glasnost was still five years away, and the East-German Government, also known as the GDR (German Democratic Republic), kept its fellow 17 million countrymen and women in control and under constant surveillance via the Stasi, a network comprised of 100,000 officials and nearly 200,000 informants. The network had one simple goal: to know everything about “the lives of others.”
Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Muhe) is a devoted Stasi officer and expert interrogator. He is given the job of collecting evidence against the famous ”and devoutly loyal to the GDR- playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) by Lieutenant Colonel Anton Grubitz (Ulrich Tukur), a former classmate of Wiesler’s who now heads the Culture Department at the State Security. The assignment, “Operation Procedure”, comes courtesy of Minister Bruno Hempf (Thomas Thieme). Hempf claims he has doubts about Dreyman’s loyalty to the GDR, when in truth the operation is hatched solely because of the Minister’s attraction to an actress named Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck), who also happens to be Dreyman’s live-in girlfriend.
With Georg’s apartment systematically bugged, Wiesler begins his surveillance (his base of operations is in the attic of Dreyman’s apartment building). At first Weisler’s observations show that, unlike most of his artistic peers, Dreyman does not display any outwardly disdain for the GDR. But when personal events begin to test his loyalty, Dreyman realizes he can no longer remain silent about conditions of life in his country. With the help of a famous West German publication, Georg begins to write an article criticizing and exposing certain East Germany policies.
Wiesler finally has the proof he needs to destroy Georg and to serve his country, but his unemotional faÃ§ade begins to show signs of erosion. The day-to-day observation of his subjects begins drawing him into their world, which puts his position as an impartial agent of the GDR into question. His immersion in “the lives of others,” in love, literature and freethinking, also makes Wiesler acutely aware of the shortfalls of his own existence.
On the surface, The Lives of Others works both an observant political drama and a suspenseful thriller that slowly builds tension and keeps the viewer riveted without resorting to cheap theatrics. Through the widescreen lens of cinematographer Hagen Bogdanski’s camera and Silke Buhr’s superb production design, Lives is a detailed, fascinating look into a time, place and political system that ” fortunately – few of us have experienced. The East Germany presented here is a bleak, Orwellian society made even more unsettling because of its actual existence (the surveillance equipment used in the film was the actual equipment the Stasi used).
Those factors alone would be enough to make for a great film. But with an assured directorial and writing hand, debuting feature filmmaker Florian Henckel Von Donnersmarck goes deeper and gives us a lot more to delve into and experience. The characters that populate Von Donnersmarck’s screenplay have dimension and are filled with moral ambiguity. And through these people, Von Donnersmarck adeptly touches upon themes of loneliness, betrayal and ultimately, redemption without ever hitting the viewer over the head with any of them.
In a performance that should have netted him a Best Actor Oscar nomination, the late Ulrich Muhe (who died from stomach cancer this past July at age 54) is nothing short of amazing as the conflicted Weisler, carefully conveying the Stasi officer’s internal struggle and rediscovery of his soul without ever overdoing it. Sebastian Koch and Martina Gedeck are also excellent as Dreyman and Christa, giving the story its emotional core, while Ulrich Tukur is wonderfully slimy as Grubitz.
If you’re one of the many who get an uneasy feeling every time you hear or read about the Bush Administration’s wiretapping program and his efforts to expand it, watching The Lives of Others isn’t going to make you feel any better. In fact, it might be enough to make you consider canceling your phone and internet accounts for good. But if you can brush aside those feelings for 138 minutes, you’ll discover a remarkable film that involves, entertains and stays with you for quite some time.
It’s hard to believe that a little over a year ago, we were all running scared from any and all Blu-ray releases from Sony. Compression artifacts, edge enhancement and a lack of extras were all factors that made many of us wonder if the Blu-ray format was going to be another one of Sony’s infamous technology fatalities along the lines of the Mini-disc or our old departed friend, the Beta format.
But what a difference a year makes. Sony, as we all know, has got their act together when it comes to Blu-ray releases, and “The Lives of Others” is no exception. The MPEG-4/AVC encoded transfer (2.35:1 ratio) is rock solid, one I would put on a par with the studio’s best transfers. Despite the bleakness of the story’s setting and oppressive nature, colors do manage to make their presence known throughout, which are backed by contrast, black levels and details that are all first-rate. I couldn’t see any compression artifacts on the picture, and video noise only appeared once or twice (if that) during the film’s running time.
As you would expect, this film is primarily dialogue driven. Still, the disc’s two audio tracks are quite commendable. Both tracks are in German: a 5.1 Dolby Digital and an uncompressed PCM track (thank you Sony for respecting your viewers” intelligence by not putting an English dub track on the disc). As is the case with other Sony Blu-ray releases, the uncompressed audio track has a wider, fuller feel to it. But this doesn’t mean that the Dolby Digital track is to be dismissed. Dialogue on both tracks comes across loud and clear, as does Gabriel Yared and Stephane Moucha’s haunting score. The surround channels are used sporadically, usually making their presence known in scenes with crowds, while bass is mostly regulated to accompanying the music score.
The disc comes with a selection of supplements that compliment the film rather than over-glorify it with manufactured praise like your typical DVD puff pieces. While informative and involving to both watch and listen to, I have to say that Sony could have done a little bit better in terms of authoring some of the supplements as compression artifacts and mediocre picture quality hindered my enjoyment just a bit.
Director Von Donnersmarck provides a thoughtful Feature-Length Audio Commentary, recorded in London on April 12th, 2007. The German director’s English is excellent and fills the track with stories about the production, the time period the film takes place in and has tons of (justifiable) praise for his cast and crew. There are some things that repeat themselves in a couple of the other supplements, but this track offers so much more that you won’t mind the occasional redundancy.
Usually, when you get a collection of Deleted Scenes, you can see why they were cut from the final print. With the possible exception of one scene, I’m trying to figure why the ones from this film were cut in the first place (length issues, perhaps). The seven scenes (Weisler’s Evening, Hoarding of Goods, Brecht’s “Animal Poems”, Farewell to Jerska, Ute, The Cactus and Party of Democratic Socialism) add nice character bits here and there, and none of the scenes run long enough (the total running time is a bit under nine minutes) to offset the film’s pacing.
A 30-minute Interview with Florian Henckel Von Donnersmarck was recorded at the Toronto Film Festival on September 9, 2006. As with the audio commentary, the director comes across intelligently and gives the viewer a lot of information about his research and development of the screenplay, working with the cast, striving for authenticity, the reception the film received from German audiences and what the movie’s message is.
A fair amount of the above topics, as well as the story’s origins, use of music and the occasional difficulty of production, are also covered in the twenty-minute Making of The Lives of Others.. Aside from the director, cast members are also interviewed, providing their own real-life experiences with the Stasi (Muhe was under surveillance quite a bit while growing up, which allowed him to help with a lot of the screenplay’s details) and living in the GDR.
The film’s theatrical trailer is no where to be found on this disc, but there are Previews for four other films: the atrocious Halle Berry thriller Perfect Stranger, Premonition (remember: friends don’t let friends watch Sandra Bullock films), Reign Over Me and Paul Verhoeven’s Black Book (a film I am very much looking forward to seeing).
The Lives of Others is a knockout of a movie, easily one of the smartest political thrillers to come out of any country in the past few years. Sony has given the Oscar-winning film a solid Blu-ray release, featuring an excellent video and audio presentation as well as a nice selection of supplemental material. Without question one of 2006’s best films, The Lives of Others becomes one of 2007’s home video releases and comes highly recommended.
– Shawn Fitzgerald