Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
You probably know this story, or probably think you do anyway. The fear of the surveillance society is almost as popular a fear as global warming these days.
With Britain owning a full quarter of the world’s CCTV cameras, and John Reid floating absurdly chilling ideas such as cameras with microphones and speakers so policemen can shout at you from afar, it’s probably little wonder – with each passing year George Orwell is beginning to look more and more prescient.
And its with an Orwellian feeling plot that German Oscar winner The Lives of Others (Das Leben Der Anderen) kicks off. Georg Dreyman (Sebastien Koch), a committed Communist playwright, is a star of 1980s socialist Berlin. But his girlfriend, the equally talented Christa-Maria Seyland (Martina Gedeck), has been forced into an illicit affair with the lecherous Minister of Culture Bruno Hempf (Thomas Thieme). Hempf, unwilling to share his love interest, puts Dreyman under surveillance in the hopes of being able to jail him: a task that falls to lonely intelligence agent Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mhe).
To reveal more would be criminal, because The Lives of Others depends on the tautness of its plot. Director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck has created a brilliantly tense piece here. You can almost feel the cloudy atmosphere of suspicion that must have hung over East Germany, everyone unsure who can be trusted or where the next microphone is placed.
But it doesn’t just trade off suspicion. The Lives of Others is more of a humanist piece, more Solzhenitsyn than Orwell, offering possibilities of redemption to even its basest of characters – some taken, some not. von Donnersmarck often seems more concerned with the crushing weight of the system than individual rights and wrongs, as even the powerful have their careers placed in jeopardy by the whims of the individual.
Kock and Mhe shine as the two leads, constantly with each other and yet never meeting face to face. Ample support is provided by Gedeck, Thieme and especially Ulrich Tukur as Wiesler’s ambitious, grasping Captain.
von Donnersmarck ramps up the tension without recourse to action, in the end fate is determined by decisions made in his characters heads. A masterful film, well worth a watch.