Curiously - or perhaps not - the four decades of economic hardship and political oppression endured by the citizens of the former German Democratic Republic have, in the years since reunification, given way to "Ostalgie," a pervasive nostalgia for life in the GDR (see, as an example, Wolfgang Becker's smash-hit, international award-winning comedy "Goodbye Lenin!"). Whatever its modest virtues and minor flaws, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's similarly lauded, Oscar-nominated debut feature "The Lives of Others" offers a refreshing corrective to this nostalgia, albeit one steeped in a sentimentalized uplift all its own.
Though it appears to be equal parts political thriller, romantic drama, and period picture, "The Lives of Others" starts as one thing and slowly, almost imperceptibly, becomes something else altogether. Ulrich Muhe plays an officer of the Stasi, the East German secret police, who is assigned to surveil playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) and Dreyman's vain, beautiful, drug-addicted actress-girlfriend (Martina Gedeck). Dreyman struggles to reconcile his artistic dependence on the state with his desire to take a political stand against the GDR, while Muhe's Captain Wiesler watches, listens, and waits. We get peeks into Wiesler's lonely, isolated private life, but this cat-and-mouse tale begins as the mouse's story. It's only later that von Donnersmarck changes emphasis, and the film grows more concerned with what it means to constantly watch others and, by extension, to live through others, than it is with the effect of being scrutinized.
Both Muhe and Koch give delicately calibrated performances that feel organic and lived-in, and whether or not you buy Wiesler's transformation (I did, for the most part), Muhe renders it convincingly, without a hint of predetermination. But it's actually Gedeck who gets top billing, playing what amounts to little more than a plot device. Were the film less compelling, it would be easy to take von Donnersmarck to task for putting such a desperate, pathetic mess of a woman, the only major female character in sight, at the film's center. As is, "The Lives of Others" betrays its careful plotting with its merciless exploitation of her, leaning on her far too heavily to motivate its narrative twists and to give its central drama an acceptable level of closure.
The effect is sturdy storytelling that never fully transcends its own limitations and generic trappings. As both a writer and director, von Donnersmarck's work struck me as fairly workmanlike - and I mean that as both a compliment and a criticism - in that the film, well, works, but that it also sputters; it engrosses without really deconstructing the mythologies it purports to unmask. It's a well-constructed bit of filmmaking, with a lovely score and efficient editing, but none of this saves von Donnersmarck from too much stretching and straining, and too many writerly conveniences, on his way to the clunky redemption of his film's epilogue.
[Chris Wisniewski is a Reverse Shot staff writer, and is a regular contributor to Publishers Weekly.]