Das Leben der Anderen [The Lives of Others] (2006)

(On Blu-ray, March 2016) As a deceptively simple story of state espionage targeting a sympathetic man, The Lives of Others doesn’t waste much time in evoking two distinct sets of terrors in any contemporary viewer. The first, most obvious one, is the renewed appreciation that by 1984, the most nightmarish aspects of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four were alive and shamelessly practised in Eastern Germany, creating terror, setting neighbours against each other and ruining lives. The second, most unsettling one is the easy transfer of these activities to a modern context, at a time when any electronic device is suspected of being used by national security organizations. It really doesn’t take much to fear what a badly intentioned government could do with the capabilities now made available by the smartphone age. The Lives of Others keeps much of its understated power when set against that cold realization. The story itself isn’t complicated: when a high-ranking party official decides to target a writer for purely personal reasons, the state basically starts keeping intimate tabs on the man, and only the scruples of a mid-ranking civil servant can prevent his complete destruction. The rhythm of the story is slow, but it builds up to a very good third act, as well as a quiet act of rebellion that somehow seems more heroic given how much it costs the protagonist. Good performances (especially from Ulrich Mühe, Sebastian Koch and Martina Gedeck) bolster a savvy script from writer/director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck that takes us deep inside 1984 East Germany and the inner working of the Stasi. Comparisons with modern tools of the state are left as an exercise for the readers, albeit with a chilling reminder: The fictional heroics of The Lives of Others depend on personal integrity and human decisions. But modern surveillance systems try their best to evacuate the unreliability of the human elements…

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