The Lives of Others (Sony Pictures Classics, R)

lives2Somewhere in the 1980s, the Academy stopped awarding [adventurous] films and started handed the prizes over to overly sentimental drivel.






The Lives of Others is a rather typical Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Language Film. From Germany, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's film debut is set during the early 1980s in East Germany, where the secret police have decided to wire and spy upon famed playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch). Like most foreign-language Oscar winners of late, it's socially, culturally, and historically viable. It's set during an ugly period in time, where the triumph of the human heart still glimmers onscreen (see Tsotsi, Nowhere in Africa, Life Is Beautiful, and Kolya for other examples, all of which beat out edgier fare to claim their awards).

Somewhere in the 1980s, the Academy stopped awarding films like Fellini's , Bergman's Through a Glass Darkly, or Buñuel's The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and started handed the prizes over to overly sentimental drivel like Cinema Paradiso, Mediterraneo, and Belle époque. This is not to say that The Lives of Others falls into that unfortunate pile, but thematically, it fits the bill.

Voyeuristically, the film is fascinating, as officer Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe of Funny Games and Amen.) begins spying, and inevitably sympathizing, with the leftist (or Westist) Dreyman. At suspense, Henckel von Donnersmarck is greatly skilled, yet he so often feels the need to tug on our heartstrings. Though I interviewed him on the matter, I still find it questionable the depiction of rich humanity in time of tragedy. Thankfully, even when sudsy, The Lives of Others is taut and engrossing, two things, along with the fine performances from Mühe and Koch, rise this film above the bad company it may keep, and I can't help but smile thinking about this film beating out the overly praised fantasy Pan's Labyrinth. | Joe Bowman 

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