Wednesday, January 9, 2008

The Lives of Others

This film bears a great kinship to the old Francis Coppola classic The Conversation. Both were about men who secretly listened in on private conversations, and who accidentally overheard secrets that would be extremely destructive if made known. The films do part ways when it comes to awards, though; The Conversation, being in English, was nominated for Best Picture, while this film, n German with English subtitles, had to content itself with winning Best Foreign Language Film, a kind of conciliatory prize that’s there to acknowledge that most Academy voters can’t be bothered to watch films that aren’t in proper American.

The film is set during the mid-80s, when the Stasi are keeping tabs on virtually every citizen in Eastern Germany. This is not the most pleasant time for anyone there; fear and paranoia run rampant, though the most crippling emotional state is sheer despair. As one character points out, when the GDR stopped tracking the number of suicides in the nation, back in 1977, it had the second highest suicide rate of any country in Europe, behind only Hungary. Into this world resides Hauptmann Wiesler, an ambitious Stasi agent who is assigned to bug the home of a famous playwright in hopes of uncovering evidence against a corrupt politician that the playwright’s actress girlfriend is possibly having an affair with. Got all that? Good, because the plot only gets more labyrinthine from there, and it wouldn’t be fair to spoil what Wiesler actually uncovers about the playwright, nor what he decides to do about it, nor the moral dilemmas involved, nor how it all ends.

The comparison must be made, once more, to The Conversation. Both films employ protagonists that occupy a murky gray moral zone. Even if they want to generally do the right thing, their careers are based off of spying on people’s most intimate moments. Both also face the same choice, of whether or not to rebel against their employers and try to retain what little bit of their souls they have left. This is somewhat fast paced than its spiritual predecessor was, but I’d say they are both at about the same level of overall quality. This film fully earned its Best Foreign Language Film win, and frankly should have gotten a Best Picture nomination to go along with it; it certainly deserved it more than a few of the actual nominations did.

Rating: ****

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