Thursday, May 24, 2007

A great, great film

William F. Buckley writes a column this week about how an old friend called and told him to drop everything, seek out a movie called The Lives of Others, and go see it. That's literally what Buckley did, and he effused so thoroughly that I did the same thing. And now I'm telling you to do it.

Das Leben Den Anderen is set in East Germany, 1984, five years before the fall of the Berlin wall, and no doubt director-screenwriter Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck chose that Orwellian year deliberately. It is a society so totalitarian that people are afraid to tell jokes about the country's leader, Erich Honecker, for fear their lives will be ruined or worse. The story begins as Captain Wiesler of the secret police known as the Stasi is giving a lecture to students in State Security school about how to conduct a 48-hour interrogation that will yield information just about every time.

Wiesler, brilliantly portrayed by Ulrich Mühe, is drawn into the surveillance of playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) and his actress lover Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck), leading the team that bugs their apartment and setting up shop in the building's attic with electronic equipment that looks outdated even for 23 years ago but does the trick. Slowly he learns there's a reason why Dreyman was selected for monitoring, and it's not just that he's not a perfect little socialist.

What follows is a compelling, suspenseful and ultimately satisfying character study about small but powerful victories under an oppressive regime. The 82-year-old Buckley wrote, "I turned to my companion and said, 'I think that is the best movie I ever saw.'” I have seen a lot of movies and "best" is a big word, but this film will spring to mind from now on when I think about the best movies I've seen.

We stayed through the closing credits, even though our German is shaky to non-existent, in part because we didn't want to let go of the story or the lush, beautiful score by Stéphane Moucha and Gabriel Yared, and Sweetie turned to me and said something she's never said right after a movie: "That was great!"

Das Leben den Anderen has wracked up a boatload of awards including the European Film Academy's Best Picture award and this year's Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Mühe has won four Best Actor awards for this performance.

Don't wait for the DVD if you don't have to. Run to any theater showing The Lives of Others and drink in this brilliant film.

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