The Lives of Others

5 out of 5 stars
SUSPICIOUS MIND Mhe listens in on some shady characters.
SUSPICIOUS MIND Mhe listens in on some shady characters.

Time Out says

5 out of 5 stars

Set on the cusp of the Cold War’s thaw-out, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s debut feature revisits an East Germany whose surveillance system would make the NSA emerald green with envy. These were the glory days of the Stasi, the German Democratic Republic’s secret police force composed of men like Captain Wiesler (Mhe)—dangerously efficient, emotionally detached and able to spot subversives before they’ve uttered a single word. Assigned to keep tabs on a popular playwright (Koch), the officer wiretaps the author’s apartment. The more Wiesler hears, however, the more the eavesdropper develops an empathy for both his prey and the writer’s actor girlfriend (Gedeck). Like his cinematic ancestor, The Conversation’s Harry Caul, this pathological professional is doomed to get personally involved, and that’s when the Scheisse hits the fan.

You can pick out the works of others in Von Donnersmarck’s drama—America’s paranoid ’70s thrillers, British espionage flicks and various dour nail-biters featuring overcoated spies coming in from the cold. But it’s the performances (especially Mhe’s compartmentalized spook) and the film’s sharklike forward momentum that make The Lives of Others a compelling look at the psychic toll incurred by a society obsessed with security. The relentless pace resembles a noose tightening; like the claustrophobic Army of Shadows, the movie frames its compositions for maximum constriction. It’s too soon to tell whether this young German filmmaker is our generation’s Jean-Pierre Melville, but judging from how he sustains a piano-wire tautness down to the final freeze-framed shot, the director has undeniably perfected the art of turning the screw. (Opens Fri; Click here for venues.) — David Fear



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