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The Lives of Others

September 5, 2010

The Lives of Others (2006)
Director: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
Actors: Ulrich Mühe, Sebastian Koch, Martina Gedeck

Synopsis: Stasi-operative, Gerd (Ulrich Mühe), gradually begins to question his conscience after being witness to the dismantling of the lives of an artistic couple (Sebastian Koch and Martina Gedeck).

Review: Amid what seems like universal praise from both critics and the paying public, I actually found The Lives of Others to be a profoundly facetious film with serious ethical and dramatic flaws. By making the Stasi operative the film’s moral centre, von Donnersmarck risks trivialising or making subservient the traumas of the real victims while he valorises and aestheticises the Stasi man’s change of heart. The clearly intended ‘cathartic’ ending felt strangely pornographic and insincere to me, as if the material was merely a mechanism designed to provide a slick, emotionally uplifting ending, to flatter the intelligence and morals of a regular arthouse audience. Also, though I’m not interested in rigorous historical accuracy per sé, I would have thought dramatising the Stasi man’s redemption to be a literal impossibility, or at the very least a highly selective flight of fancy.

Dramatically, the film suffers from von Donnersmarck’s propensity to want to ‘end-gain’ any narrative subtext. The Stasi operative’s sympathies turn too suddenly and arbitrarily after the necessary opening that contextualises his ruthless character. Even the overall rhythm and ethos of the picture is too melodramatic as a demonstrative score articulates crucial dramatic developments overly literally. To my tastes, von Donnersmarck would have been better served by playing against the material – framing the action with more emotional reticence and being less inclined to apply simplistic moral equivalence. Or simply, the narrative should have been amended to reflect the irrevocable and irredeemable misery wrought by the Stasi system. Von Donnersmarck is clearly a very talented technician – the film is brilliantly designed and shot – but lest he not forget the “ethics” amid “aesthetics”. (June 2007)

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