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ISSUE 120 VOL 12 PUBLISHED 2/23/2007

An intimate look into ‘The Lives of Others’

By Kathryn Sederberg
Contributing Writer

Friday, February 23, 2007

What unites all of us if not art, if not music? What can bring emotion into a cold, indifferent world if not a piano sonata from Beethoven? German director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s “The Lives of Others” is an ode to a man who finds enough moral integrity to do what he knows is right in spite of the corruption surrounding him.

Von Donnersmarck visited Edina Cinema on Feb. 17 to participate in the Talk Cinema series and promote his film “The Lives of Others” before its official release date of Feb. 23. He is in the United States for the 2007 Academy Awards; his film is nominated for Best Foreign Film.

The story takes place in East Berlin in the 1980s, a time in which socialist party loyalties could make or break a career for aspiring artists. Commands from on high require full surveillance of writer Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) and his girlfriend Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck). Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe), of the East German secret police, is assigned to listen in on the lives of these two artists. In doing so, he is pushed to extremes and forced to make a decision between what is morally right and what is right for his career.

The East German setting makes the story interesting, but the film is not about the totalitarian state, or even state censorship, although these are themes one cannot help but ponder. The real focal point of the film is the ethical dilemma faced by a man who had always followed the rules and even taught classes on interrogation. But when the rules become hard to follow, should one follow his or her own moral code?

Von Donnersmarck, who also wrote the screenplay, was inspired by something he once heard about Lenin: that Beethoven’s “Apassionata” made him want only to be kind and loving to his fellow human beings, but that he needed violence to finish the revolution. This quote made von Donnersmarck realize that it is music that can have the power to make us prioritize the humane over ideology, feelings over principles and love over dogmatically following rules.

Wiesler’s character sits in a cold, bare room above the artists’ apartment and listens in on their lives through his headphones, stoically recording their every word and action. His life is one of solitude, routine and discipline, until he one day hears the “Apassionata” and begins to feel for the people who are victims of the all-powerful state surveillance system.

Mühe’s performance shows a mastery of the theatrical art of nuance, and as this rule-abiding government official is moved to tears by the beauty of a piano sonata, you will be, too.

This is a beautiful movie, complemented by music from Gabriel Yared (“Cold Mountain,” “The Talented Mr. Ripley”). The monochromatic blandness of socialist East Germany and its secret police is juxtaposed with images of warm moments between a couple in love. The tension and plot will captivate audiences from the first scene, and the human drama makes the film emotionally entrancing as well.

Don’t let the Foreign Language category scare you: It’s worth reading the subtitles to see this philosophical and artistic masterpiece.

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