The globe's best . . .
"Who knows the secrets of the human heart?" Col in The Crying Game
When I saw 2006's Oscar winning Departed, I was satisfied it could be the best picture of the year; then I saw Pan's Labyrinth and thought it imaginatively superior; then I saw Lives of Others, the Oscar choice for best foreign film, and I knew it was the globe's best film of the year, no argument.
Lives of Others is what all movie making should strive to be: interesting characters, thrilling plot, superb acting, and thematic weight. It's set in East Berlin, 1984, five years before the Wall's fall and Gorbachev's "glasnost" and feeling the aftershocks of Nazism, in this case the Stasi, a government agency similar to the SS. Capt. Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Muehe), a Stasi teacher and coldly efficient information gatherer, surreptitiously watches playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) and his actress girlfriend Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck) to get compromising details that would damn Dreyman and open the romantic way for the culture minister, Bruno Hempf (Thomas Thieme). Oddly for an artist, Dreyman is loyal to socialism, so it is through Sieland that the information must come.
The dramatic hub of this absorbing intrigue is the growing affection Wiesler gains for the actress and coincidentally the underground freedom movement, mostly as it is represented by artists and their friends. While his efficiency is amply evident in his cool detachment, similar to that of Rafe Fiennes in Schindler's List and Serg Lopez in Pan's Labyrinth, his humanity seeps out at the edges as he becomes vicariously involved in the artists' lives. First-time director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck misses not a beat in slowly revealing the hearts of all his principals while he creates a plot remarkably interesting for a character-driven piece.
Few other films could mine as well the rich conflict between the totalitarian state and artists who yearn for freedom of expression, between the loyalties of friends and lovers and the crushing exigency of survival. Lives of Others shows how difficult it is to watch others' lives unfold and not be drawn to their passion. It's rough out there: No other film of 2006 showed that cliche better. Here's looking at you, best film of the year.