Since its release in May 2006, The Lives of Others (“Das Leben der Anderen”) has won just about every major German film prize, been named best film at the European Film Awards in Warsaw, and taken the Oscar for best foreign-language film at this year’s Academy Awards. Prizes aren’t everything, of course, and the tastes of audiences and juries don’t always coincide. There’s little chance that this debut film by the young Cologne-born director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck will outgross Blades of Glory or Meet the Robinsons. Nevertheless, in late April as I am writing this in London, a fortnight or so after the film went on release here, The Lives of Others is doing better at the box office than any other film currently showing in the British capital.
Not only have those London cinemas been packed to a degree unusual for a serious German film with subtitles, but they’ve been packed with people utterly absorbed by the subtle, somber drama unfolding on screen. Almost everyone I know who has seen it agrees that they can scarcely remember a cinema so silent, an audience so rapt. This isn’t a film to munch popcorn through.
What makes this success all the more remarkable is the film’s subject. Set in 1984, The Lives of Others evokes in extraordinary, painstaking detail the dark days of a divided Europe as seen from the dreary, dysfunctional country at its heart: East Germany, or the Deutsche Demokratische Republik (DDR), to give it its grotesquely inapposite, and much contested, “proper” name.
Beautifully shot in an authentically dismal East German palette of grays and browns and greens—a dozen different shades of fear—the film follows an agent of the East German Ministry of State Security, the hated Stasi, as he spies on a successful playwright and his actress girlfriend. The glamorous couple are not dissidents but privileged members of the country’s cultural elite. Even by the notoriously elastic legal standards of the DDR, they have committed no crime, but that’s not enough to save them from the menacing attentions of the state. The Stasi man assigned to pursue them (in a quite riveting performance from leading East German actor Ulrich Mühe) is a top operative, dedicated, loyal, remorseless, so good at his job that he gives classes in interrogation at the Stasi training school. He bugs the couple’s apartment and installs himself in the attic to monitor their every word, their every move. His task is to destroy their world. Yet as he shadows and invades his fellow citizens’ lives, he comes gradually, astonishingly, to...