Aug 27, 2007

The Lives of Others (2006): C+

The Lives of Others aims to flatter its audience – a quality typical for a film whose emotional posturing is only skin deep. Well meaning though it is, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s Oscar-winner compulsively hand-holds the viewer through a guided history tour of 80’s East Germany, where the oppressive government has made it its goal “to know everything” and even the slightest of dissenters are subjected to endless interrogations and customized forms of psychological torture. Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe) is an example-setting Stasi office: by the book, firm, consistent, and unforgiving. However, his monitoring of a suspected playwright (Sebastian Koch) and his girlfriend (Martina Gedeck ) begins to erode his rigid exterior, as he sees the human cost levied by the system he has so firmly supported. Mühe’s performance is a fine one but the part aches for dimension; such as it is, the ambiguous motivation of his swaying allegiance isn’t so much rooted in a sense of implicit humanity as it is a mere plot gimmick needed to achieve the film’s sermonizing goals. Both Wiesler’s character and the bulk of the plot are painted in little more than the broadest of strokes, thus freeing the audience from having to truly come to terms with the social-political conflicts at the film’s center. Spielberg’s Schindler’s List is overrated but the film probes its material beyond our day-to-day notions of good and bad, a necessity in coming to terms with the role of evil in our world. Aesthetically and historically, though, The Lives of Others is pure vanilla – Donnersmarck presents us with a potentially thrilling plot but virtually all the emotional strings have been detached, instead opting to spell out its central conflicts for us in condescending expositional form, all the way through the disastrous, intolerably force-fed coda. Such is only exacerbated by Hagen Bogdanski’s point-and-shoot cinematography, suffocatingly blocked and hermetically sealing any emotional rawness beneath the film’s style-free highbrow exterior. There’s no change of mood, no shift of tone throughout; the film wants to offend no one, and in doing so has totally deprived itself of personality or feeling (one scene in particular, in which a moment of great tragedy transpires, unfolds so plainly that it suggests a botched Three Stooges gag). The film’s success over Pan’s Labyrinth at the 2007 Oscars is obvious in retrospect, less because of its historical subject matter than it’s total lack of stylistic intrigue – its pandering dryness self-righteously masquerades as highbrow importance. The film isn’t as hysterical as The Sea Inside, another recent Foreign Language winner, yet it remains an unfortunate reminder of the Academy’s oft-gutless elitism.


  1. Boy, are we ever on the same page about this one.

    Written earlier that same day. Hey, were you spying on me?

  2. Anonymous7:41 PM

    Good review. I see your point; politically, the film is a bit facile, but I think the film functions at a more interesting level when you read it as a statement on the power and nature of art and less as a history lesson or political fable.

  3. arbogast: Oh, don't you know it. ^_^

    h. stewart: You're right in that the film is more interesting in its views of art than politics. Dramatically, though, I still think it was a total bore.

    I like your blog - I'll have to check it out more often.

  4. Anonymous6:24 PM

    I think you missed the finer nuances of this film. Which is a shame because this film works on a number of emotional levels!

    I'm surprised in a way by your bullish writing style. This is a refreshing film and a cut above the rest of the bile which hollywood usually churns out.

  5. Re: anonymous

    I don't think I "missed" the nuances so much as I wasn't impacted by them as many were (Ebert, the Academy). I may have liked the spiffy plot structure more had the film not gone out of its way in the coda to point out just how spiffy it was ("It's for me"...and FREEZE FRAME! Ta da!), and the prim and packaged style was more or less a neutering factor from start to finish. Let's try one more time, with feeling.

    If I'm bullish (a word whose definitions range from "stubborn and stupid" to "optimistic and confident"), then it's because I'm young and finding my voice. There are plenty of reviews I'm unhappy with in retrospect, and though I agree with you that this film is a cut above most others, neither of those facts changes my opinion itself.

  6. Anonymous1:01 PM

    You've just answerd my question with your line.

    'I'm young and finding my voice'

    Grow up and stop writing for your ego and trying to be sensationalist.

  7. This comment has been removed by the author.

  8. Is it that I need to 'grow up' (retrospectively I'm sure I'll agree with the notion - even if not in regard to this specific example - as I'm sure anyone would about their 22-year-old self), or is it that I need to agree with you? Holding a minority opinion in no way necessitates one being a 'sensationalist' (though becoming one is an easy pitfall, and one I try to avoid as much as possible), and the only aspect of my ego that I try to satisfy is the part that dictates my being honest. If that doesn't satisfy you, then I could care less about what would.

  9. Umm, it's "its" when we're speaking about the possessive case and "I COULDN'T care less" when talking about how much we don't care.

    Please learn your trade properly before venturing to educate us with your opinions. It might even give you an edge of credibility . . .

    But keep on trucking anyway, dude. It isn't always easy to be a dissident.

  10. Anonymous1:47 PM

    I can see your point, but I disagree about the effects of the film's plainness. The whole point of it is that there is humanity in every one of us, which may be sentimental, but it's contrasted by chilling scenes, so in my opinion the two cancel each other out.

  11. The film is for an older generation, it is not fast or cool. Its plainness evokes that life. People who experienced that world praise its authenticity. To appreciate the film you have to take the characters seriously as representatives of the generations who were so messed up by communism and empathize with their tragedies. Be meek, look and learn, recognise that this is a poem of a movie, not a comic strip.

  12. @CLARK: Compared to this movie, it is.

  13. Anonymous8:26 PM

    The only thing this review did is confirm that the author is completely immune to subtlety. He mis-identifies the setting of the film (Stasi E. Germany, both a place and a political representation) for the film's center while whining that the film wasn't catering to his expectations. Ironically, we can use his own words to describe this unimaginative drivel: "pandering dryness self-righteously masquerades as highbrow importance." Lack of subtlety indeed.

  14. While there's a very good chance that I'd either (a) disagree with this review outright upon watching the movie again or (b) dislike the review itself regardless, at least I own my own words, Anonymous. Also, it might not be as subtle as you think (but probably better than I gave it credit for those years ago), but I hardly think a blog capsule can, by its own definition, masquerade as the highbrow. That would be the two-dozen-paragraph-long diatribes over at Reverse Shot.