The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen)
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At this year’s Oscar party, my fellow members of the Central Ohio Film Critics Association were surprised to see a film other than Pan’s Labyrinth take home the Oscar for Best Foreign Film. None of us expected The Lives of Others to win—but that’s only because none of us had seen it yet. Now that we have, however, no one’s surprised.

The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen) is set in 1980s East Germany, a country controlled by an enormous State Security, known as the Stasi. Much of the country is under constant surveillance—and many of those who aren’t are government informants, tattling on their friends and neighbors.

Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) is a popular East German playwright who’s widely regarded as loyal to socialism—unlike many of his colleagues and friends. But when his loyalty is questioned, the Stasi put him under full surveillance. They quickly install listening devices in Dreyman’s apartment and hand the operation over to Captain Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe), a respected interrogator and professor, who’s told, in no uncertain terms, that his job is to find something—anything—that can be used against Dreyman.

For hours each day, Weiser secretly listens in on Dreyman and his girlfriend, actress Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck). Their conversations, their parties, their phone calls, their private moments—he listens to them all and takes careful notes. But as he listens, he begins to see how the government’s influence has changed their lives—and he actually begins to care about what happens to them.

The Lives of Others is a gripping film that takes a serious and thoughtful look at life in East Germany before the Wall went down. Though the story moves along at a relaxed pace, there isn’t a single dull moment—and for a foreign drama that’s more than two hours long, that’s saying a lot. But the storytelling is spectacular, as are the performances—and the result is both beautiful and chilling. As Wiesler listens in on every detail of Dreyman and Sieland’s lives, it’s not hard to see why he’d be so fascinated by them. Wiesler’s life and his surroundings are dull and drab—the same old thing, day after day—but the artists’ lives are filled with love and passion and drama and color. You’ll be fascinated by them, too.

If you’re a subtitle novice, be warned that there’s quite a bit of dialogue, so you might want to brush up a bit on your speed reading—but The Lives of Others is well worth the effort.

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