I was only eleven years old in 1989 when the Berlin Wall was dismantled by the ecstatic citizens of East and West Berlin. At school, our history teachers tried to explain the historical significance of the event, while at home, the nightly news breathlessly reported on the political liberation transpiring across the ocean.
But it wasn't until I watched 'The Lives of Others' -- an involving period piece from first time writer/director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck -- that I realized how fundamentally oppressed the people of East Berlin had been under the communist regime of East Germany. Anyone caught challenging the absolute authority of the Eastern ideal was considered a national threat to the German Democratic Republic (or the GDR, for short).
Artists were blacklisted, writers were arrested, and free thinkers of all sorts were interrogated and imprisoned on a regular basis. An entire society accepted what they were told for fear of their safety, their careers, and their families' well being. There was no concept of privacy or personal rights -- if the GDR determined a person disagreed with the state, they could monitor or jail that particular individual at a moment's notice.
'The Lives of Others' opens in 1984 as the secret police force of East Germany ("the Stasi") has trained its eyes and ears on every aspect of its citizenry. A straight-edged Stasi idealist named Gerd Wiesler (the late Ulrich Muhe) is quickly advancing through the ranks with a close affiliation to his commanding officer, Anton Grubitz (Ulrich Tukur). Grubitz assigns Wiesler to watch a man named Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch), a playwright with ties to other blacklisted writers and political troublemakers. Wiesler sets up a surveilence center in an empty room above Dreyman's apartment and proceeds to spy on the playwright and his girlfriend, Christa (Martina Gedeck).
But something happens to Wiesler as he listens in on all the goings on in Georg's apartment and is forced to hear debates on social issues the Stasi loyalist never considered. As he becomes more entrenched in Georg's life, his perceptions change and he begins to interfere with his own investigation -- it begins with simple alterations to his logs, but he soon becomes an accomplice to the social revolution he swore to destroy.
'The Lives of Others' won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar at the 2007 Academy Awards and collected a host of prizes and nominations across the globe. Critics praised its taught pacing and careful character study, raving about its script, the sure-handedness of its rookie director, and the talent of its cast.
After viewing the film myself, I have to say it deserves every bit of hype and attention it has received. Not only does it deftly educate its audience on the reign of the GDR, but it invigorates the heart and mind with universal themes that are just as applicable to our own culture in 2007 as they are to the on-screen characters.
Newcomers to German film will be floored by Ulrich Muhe (who sadly passed away in July of 2007) and Sebastian Koch -- both actors weave emotional complexities into their characters while managing to keep them both believable and sympathetic. Koch's Georg is quiet but determined -- an unwitting pawn who experiences an ideological awakening as his government clamps down on his life. Muhe's portrayal of Wiesler is rich and layered, eliciting an extraordinary range of emotions over the course of the film.
The defining moment of Muhe's performance comes as he encounters a young child in an elevator at the film's halfway mark. The boy asks Wiesler if he is a Stasi officer, and Wiesler retorts by asking the boy what the Stasi are. When the child explains what his father thinks of the GDR, Wiesler nearly asks for the name of the boy's father before stopping in his tracks. This brief beat of humanity is startlingly authentic, and demonstrates in a single beat the complex inner-turmoil of his character.
I had a few small quibbles -- the movie takes too long to reach its final resolution after the climax, and the film doesn't give a satisfying overview of the events that led to the construction of the Berlin Wall in the '60s. It's also worth noting that minor points of historical accuracy have been called into question. Still, these are tiny complaints about an otherwise exceptional film.
Do yourself the favor of sinking into 'The Lives of Others.' It's a captivating exploration of a pivotal moment in history and a sobering examination of personal freedoms and the rights we often take for granted.
Presented in this Blu-ray edition in 1080p with the AVC MPEG-4 codec, 'The Lives of Others' continues to impress with its picture quality.
While the visual tone of the film is decidedly bleak, black levels remain deep, shadows are well delineated, and object edges are crisp. Green and yellow hues are intentionally used to distress the photography without hindering the impact of the visuals, an effect that makes the film feel a bit like a documentary. Detail is also quite striking -- take one look at the funeral scene in the second act and the quality of the transfer is immediately apparent. Leaves are sharply defined on the ground and in the trees, clothing textures have an earthy realism, and the wood grain on the coffin is visible even in long shots.
Like the palette, fleshtones vary with the mood of each scene, but never seem plasticized or artificial in any way. Skin textures are convincing and stubble and hair pop along with other elements in the foreground and background. Even the low-lit scenes are notable, retaining the image depth established by rest of the film. There is a moderate veil of grain overtop the image, but I didn't catch any instances of artifacting or banding.
The only criticisms I have of this video presentation are relatively minor. First, there are a few shots in some of the film's night scenes that are briefly populated with noise (the three shots I spotted that contained this problem only lasted 2-3 seconds each). Second, there are minor print flecks scattered throughout the film (tiny white dots that are a part of the original print). With the rest of the image nearly perfect, these negligible issues are easy to ignore.
'The Lives of Others' is presented with two German-language tracks --- an uncompressed PCM 5.1 surround mix (48 kHz/16-bit/4.6 Mbps) and a thinner Dolby Digital 5.1 track (640 kbps). (Sorry dub fans, no English-language mix is included.)
The PCM mix showcases the vocal delivery of the actors, along with a healthy dose of quiet ambiance throughout the film. The dynamics are broad when they're on display, and the subwoofer adds a nice roundness to lower ranged sounds. The Dolby track is decent, but more problematic with stability problems during dialogue sessions and whinny treble pitches in the score.
From an audio perspective, the film's most impressive moments take place when Wiesler is listening to Georg's apartment through the surveilence headphones. With Wiesler forced to determine what's happening in the rooms below without being able to see anything, these scenes feature some impressive channel movement and pans that provide a welcome sense of space and location in the soundfield. Room acoustics are replicated to the smallest nuance and I was able to immerse myself in the soundfield without any distraction or difficulty.
I should stress that those looking for sonic fireworks will be disappointed by 'The Lives of Others.' This is a film about secrets, strained listening, and silence -- as such, the soundscape is generally quite sparse. The film's musical score only pops up in its most dramatic moments, and the environments aren't crowded or noisy.
Still, the tracks on this Blu-ray edition of 'The Lives of Others' handle the film's sound design very well, and are certainly appropriate to the material.
This Blu-ray release of 'The Lives of Others' includes all of the supplemental features found on the concurrently-released standard DVD, and Sony has definitely put together a nice package for this one.
First up is an engaging commentary from writer/director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck that answers a lot of the political, socio-economic, and historical questions I had after first watching the film. Speaking impeccable English, Donnersmarck succinctly explains a semester's worth of information over the course of the track. He also provides a wealth of behind-the-scene details, on-set anecdotes, and additional production information. This is an immensely informative track, and a must-listen for fans of the film.
A lengthy "Interview with the Director" (30 minutes) is more of the same. Donnersmarck focuses more on pre-production info here than he does in the commentary, but I couldn't shake the feeling that I had heard it all before.
A 20 minute featurette titled "The Making of The Lives of Others" once again features Donnersmarck, but also includes a series of interviews with the film's cast and crew. Presented in German with English subtitles, the most entertaining bits in this one revolve around the stories of how the film fought through adversity to make it to the screen. It also delves into the personal lives of the director, cast, and crew and examines what each person brought to the project as individuals. Perhaps most interestingly, Muhe reveals that he himself was spied on by the Stasi when he was younger.
The disc also includes a collection of seven "Deleted Scenes" (9 minutes) that round out the subtleties of the characters involved (especially Wiesler). The scenes are great to watch and add even more depth to the characters.
Finally, we close out this disc's supplements with a series of high-definition trailers for other Sony Blu-ray releases, including 'Perfect Stranger,' 'Premonition,' 'Reign Over Me,' and 'Black Book.' Sadly, no trailer is included for 'The Lives of Others.'
(Note that with the exception of the trailers, all the video-based supplements listed above are presented in 480i/p only, although they have been formatted in widescreen.)
I think critics toss around the word "brilliant" a bit too often, but while I'd like to avoid that cliche, I can't think of a better word to describe 'The Lives of Others.' Bolstered by amazing performances, the film transcends its period roots to present a smartly-written character study that will stick in your mind for weeks to come.
This Blu-ray release is a suitable match for the film, featuring an excellent video transfer, a subtle but effective audio package, and an informative batch of features. All in all, an easy recommend.