Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Lives of Others

The Lives of Others is easily one of the most recent films to find itself on my list of unseen classics, but I can see how it found its way on there. It's a German film about the period when the country was still divided and under outside rule, depicting the methods of the secret police who monitored artists and activists for illegal activity. It begins as an agent played by Ulrich Mühe starts a new mission by bugging a playwright's apartment, and listening to everything that happens pretty much around the clock. Early on the film does a good job of establishing his harsh methods and dedication to the state's goals, but for some reason this mission is different, and he finds himself sympathizing with the target and even indirectly interfering with the investigation to change things in his life.

As the film goes on, the writer moves towards real criminal activity and the agent has to decide whether to report his findings or to fudge the facts and keep the target safe. The movie is never terribly explicit about his motivations, being very low key in general and just letting peoples' shifts in opinion and perspective occur gradually. It probably has something to do with the writer's girlfriend, who seems to have a bewitching effect on everyone around her, and proves key to the continuing development of the plot. It's a quiet, contemplative film, which works with the uneasy tension of the story. It's also a very beautiful film, director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck and his crew painting an interesting portrait of a pretty oppressive time and place in history. It makes you wonder why his next film was something like The Tourist. I wasn't engrossed by it the entire time, because it is a bit slow and oblique in places. But The Lives of Others is certainly an artistic accomplishment, and for the most part a very good movie.

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