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 “heart” German films I’ve ever seen — the love story that beats at the center of it is tender and impassioned and ripely erotic — and yet this is also a very chilling and gripping film about political terror.
And yet it’s very much of an interior thing — quite emotional, and at times quite sad. But with a deeply touching “up” element at the finale.
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 thuggery, and yet one that delivers a metaphor that says even the worst of us can move towards openness and a lessening of hate. Ugliness needn’t rule.
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 unrealistic in an East German political sense, but I bought it and so did everyone else at last night’s 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.
Sony Classics is going to open Others in February to coincide with the Oscar nominations. It’s 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 (Koch) and his actress wife Christa-Maria Sieland (Gedeck, best known for her starring role in Mostly Martha).
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 share passions with, despite his constricted personality and shadowy ways.
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, but this is the first absolutely top-drawer 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 then a Volver party starting around 10:30 or 11 pm.