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Monday, 29 November 1999 19:00
Local opening date: 3/2/2007
Review by Martha Baker
Sometimes it's worth seeing a movie just for its contrast to another, and that is the case with The Good Shepherd. Compare it to The Lives of Others, and you will easily see why one works only superficially, and the other works vertically as well as horizontally. The Lives of Others succeeds because it sinks deeply into significance as a film, not only because of the story it tells but of the characters it describes and the actors' solid, stirring ways of bringing them to life.

The story is set in the year 1984, significant as more than a title and a symbol. This is the time four years before the Berlin Wall fell between East and West Germany. In 1984, East Germany is the land of surveillance both wide and deep. Spying could sometimes even be funny, depending.

The story: A successful dramatist, Georg Greyman, lives with the actress Christa-Maria Sieland. They are considered stars of the state, apolitical intellectuals rather than anti-Socialists. Nevertheless, they are under surveillance because the Minister of Culture gets the hots for Christa. So he sics a secret service agent, Gerd Wiesler, on the couple. What the pedestrian minister does not bank on is Wiesler's fascination with the world of art, with the draw of culture, with the facets of characters more vivid than gray in real life as well as in their roles in and around the stage.

Wiesler, a classmate of his boss, Anton Grubnitz, has been a successful instructor of other spies, teaching them to monitor voices and actions meticulously. Grubnitz assigns him the case of the playwright and his lover, but keeps an eye on him. Wiesler feigns full surveillance for the government when, in fact, he is watching Dreyman for his own reasons. Wiesler become an actor when he interrogates the dramatist; he becomes a writer, too, when he makes up his blow-by-blow reports. He becomes an artist without ever changing his face.

The Lives of Others
, written and directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, shifts to 1988 and into the Nineties as the dramatist tries to determine who his savior was and how best to thank him. The end is so touching and credible that it recolors the whole film. More than anything, it is a pleasure to watch Ulrich Muhe as the agent and Sebastian Koch as the sensual, sexy dramatist with integrity. Von Donnersmarck captures the greyness of East Germany in the Eighties through concrete, jackets and souls.

Along the way, Von Donnersmarck quotes a tyrant, who suggested that if he listened to Bach, he would never finish the Revolution. The Lives of Others is a paean to that thinking.


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