Triumph of Others

That Telluride Film Festival hype about Florian Henckel- Donnersmarck‘s The Lives of Others (Sony Classics, 2.07) was based on serious substance. This is one of the most penetrating German-made “heart” films I’ve ever seen — the love story at the center of it is tender and impassioned and ripely erotic — and yet it’s also a very chilling and gripping drama about political terror.

Martina Gedek, Sebastian Koch in The Lives of Others

And yet it’s very much of an interior thing — emotional at every turn and at times quite sad. Gray and dispiriting at other times, but with a touching “up” element at the end.
The Lives of Others is a political thriller with compassion — a movie about spying and paranoia and the worst aspects of Socialist bloc rigidity and bureacratic thug- gery, and yet one that delivers a metaphor that says even the worst of us can move towards openness and a lessening of hate and suspicion. Ugliness need not rule.
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It’s about the turning of a bad guy — a Stasi secret policeman (Ulrich Muhe) who is first seen as a bloodless and fiendish bureaucrat, but whose determination to spy upon and mangle the lives of a playwright (Sebastian Koch) and his actress wife (Martina Gedek) for the sake of career advancement gradually weakens and erodes, and then flips over into something else entirely.
Call it a fable or (if you’re German) unrealistic in an historical political sense, but I bought it and so did everyone else at last night’s packed screening at the Elgin. The crowd stood up at the end of the 9 pm show — clapping, cheering, woo-wooing. Muhe and Henckel-Donnersmarck, the 33 year-old director-writer, left their seats and went up on stage and took bows — several bows. They waved and smiled as the cheers kept coming, and then they turned to each other and hugged. Quite a moment.

Ulrich Muhe and Floridan Henckel-Donnersmarck taking bows on the stage of Toronto’s Elgin theatre last night around 11:15 pm.

The Lives of Others a one-week qualifying run in New York and Los Angeles, and then open it in February to coincide with the Oscar nominations. It’s all but guaranteed to be nominated as one of the five Best Foreign Films. It won 7 Lola Awards (Germany’s equivalent of the Oscar) — for Best Film, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Actor (Muhe), Best Supporting Actor (Ulrich Tukur) and Best Production Design.
Set in Berlin, the story mostly takes place in 1984 and ’85, although it jumps to ’89 (the year the Berlin Wall came down) and then to ’91 and ’93. During the 50-year history of the German Democratic Republic (’49 to ’89), the thugs who held the reins of power kept the citizenry in line through a network of secret police called the “Stasi”, an army of 200,000 bureaucrats and informers whose goal was “to know everything.”
Captain Gerd Wiesler (Muhe) is a highly placed Stasi officer who is prodded by a superior, Lieutenant Colonel Anton Grubitz (Tukur), to dig up anything negative he can on a famous playwright named Georg Dreyman (och) and his actress wife Christa-Maria Sieland (Gedeck, best known for her starring role in Mostly Martha).

Ulrich Muhe in The Lives of Others

At first the suspicions are baseless — Freyman is a dedicated socialist who believes in the GDR. But his loyalties evolve when he discovers that his wife has been pressured into a sexual relationship with a government bigwig, and especially after a theatrical director pal commits suicide due to despondency over his being blacklisted and prevented from working. Eventually Wiesler, who has had their apartment thoroughly bugged, has evidence that Wiesler is working to undermine the state.
And yet his immersion in the lives of this playwright and his actress wife leads, ironically, to a gradual bonding process — a feeling of identification and sympathy for the couple as human beings, artists…people he’d like to know and perhaps share passions with, despite his constricted personality and shadowy Stasi ways. He knows he’s not in their league and probably not worthy of their friendship, but he feels what he feels regardless.
I have to get downtown and hit the Varsity plex, but I’ll be speaking with Muhe and Henckel-Donnersmarck at their hotel tomorrow afternoon. Not counting Pedro Almodovar’s ,em>Volver< .em>, which I saw yeserday for the second time yesterday for reasons of pure pleasure, this is the first super-fine film I’ve seen at the Toronto Film Festival so far.
Later today is Venus and then Candy and then a Michael Moore thing at the Elgin, and finally a Volver party starting around 10:30 or 11 pm.