Friday, 23 February 2007

The Lives of Others - Review by Robert Duffin

Director: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
Screenwriter: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
Running Time: 137 mins
Certificate: 12A
Released: Now

Life, as the saying goes, can be stranger than fiction. The actor Ulrich Muhe began his career in early 1980s East Germany, under the Communist regime of the German Democratic Republic. During this period stories were abound that the Ministry of State Security, commonly referred to as the Stasi, had an estimated 300,000 informants, roughly one in fifty civilians, which was the largest societal penetration by an intelligence agency. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, classified documents were slowly released to the public, which unearthed a shattering secret for Ulrich Muhe. The actor discovered that his wife, actress Jenny Grollmann, and four members of his theatre group were informing on him to the Stasi.

Now Muhe stars in The Lives of Others, the third film from director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. The Oscar nominated German thriller attempts to recreate this dark period of recent German history and is one of the first films to do so in a serious fashion. It follows Stasi agent Gerd Wiesler played by Muhe, his superior Anton Grubitz (Ulrich Tukur), the playwright he is monitoring Georg Dreymann (Sebastian Koch) and Dreymann’s lover Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck).

The attention to detail of the Stasi interrogations is frightening. In the opening sequence we witness Wiesler’s “aim to know everything” techniques as he forces a young man to stay awake for forty hours straight, sitting on his hands to stop him holding up his own head. Yet Wiesler's choice of life has left an emotionally detached outsider. Echoing Harry Caul in Coppola’s The Conversation, a slow pan reveals Wiesler’s apartment to be immaculately sterile and empty. His steely robotic exterior and razor sharp smile remain fixed throughout but Muhe’s performance is all in the eyes; we can see through the evil to the despair within. In contrast is Koch’s charismatic performance as the naive Dreymann, who despite being the victim, is never fully aware of the horror of the plot that revolves around him.

Tukur’s Grubitz effectively provokes the paranoia of a society under surveillance. At Stasi HQ a young man begins a joke about Party leader Erich Honecker only to stop in fear when he realises Grubitz is sitting near by. Grubitz appears jovial and allows the joke to go on, laughing when it finishes but in a split second he snaps and demands “Name? Rank? Department?” The fear in the young workers eyes is palpable.

Donnersmarck skilfully handles the subject matter and manages to create a film that succeeds as a thriller as well as a political commentary. Shades of Michael Mann’s Heat come through both in Donnersmarck’s dual personality narrative and the flat steely blue cinematography of Hagen Bogdanski, which eerily reflects the paranoid world. From a country which has had difficulties dealing with its troubled history it would be easy for the filmmaker to vilify the Stasi and paint the liberal defectors as sympathetic heroes. Wiesler immediately strikes you as psychotic and Dreymann the suffering artist, but Donnersmarck is interested in the journey through shades of grey, with the complex individuals both emerging as victims of a flawed government.

In the end this is Muhe’s film. You can feel the emotion as the actor battles through his personal demons to create an achingly nuanced portrayal of the socially repressed spy. It’s a performance that is head and shoulders above any of those nominated for Best Actor at this weekend’s Oscar ceremony, if only it was talent and not advertising budget that ensured nominations. This is a magnificently constructed saga that must not be missed when it returns to the Glasgow Film Theatre in April.
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Peanuts said...

Hi Bob,

are you the same Robert Duffin that I knew as a friend during my student days in Waterford Regional Techical College?

Pat Jordan

RDuffin said...

Hi Pat,

I am the same your class mate in electronics from WRTC waterford.
Contact me at

Regards, Robert

RDuffin said...

Hi Pat,

Just in case this only is een by you if I have the Robert Duffin identifier, just contact me at We were in the electronics course together.
I have been trying to get in touch with you. I'm in DC.

Regards, Robert

Robert Duffin said...