The Lives of Others really is as good as the hype

By Stephen Pollard
May 15, 2007

Clive, Clive...I'm mystified by your post on The Lives of Others. I've always thought of you as a man of discernment and taste. So I don't understand how you could you write this: "[T]he characterisation is one-dimensional, the pacing is ponderous in the extreme and the storyline is full of unexplained holes."

I think we must have seen two different cuts of the film! Here's the acid test: from within about five minutes of the film starting, I was desperate for a pee. But it was so riveting, every scene gripping and every nuance on every actor's face so spot on, that I couldn't leave to do what I needed to do for the duration of the film. Rarely have I been so utterly transfixed by a film, by the characterisation or by the - this too deserved an Oscar - simply wonderful score.

Timothy Garton Ash seems to me to get it right:

Watching the film for the first time, I was powerfully affected. Yet I was also moved to object, from my own experience: "No! It was not really like that. This is all too highly colored, romantic, even melodramatic; in reality, it was all much grayer, more tawdry and banal." The playwright, for example, in his smart brown corduroy suit and open-necked shirt, dresses, walks, and talks like a West German intellectual from Schwabing, a chic quarter of Munich, not an East German. Several details are also wrong. On everyday duty, Stasi officers would not have worn those smart dress uniforms, with polished knee-length leather boots, leather belts, and cavalry-style trousers. By contrast, the cadets in the Stasi university are shown in ordinary, student-type civilian clothes; they would have been in uniform. A Stasi surveillance team would have been most unlikely to install itself in the attic of the same building—a sure give-away to the residents, not all of whom could have been reliably silenced by the kind of chilling warning that Wiesler delivers to the playwright's immediate neighbor across the stairwell: "One word to anyone and your Masha immediately loses her place to study medicine at university. Understood?"

Some of the language is also too high-flown, old-fashioned, and simply Western. A playwright who knew on which side his bread was buttered would never have used the West German word for blacklisting, Berufsverbot, in conversation with the culture minister. I never heard anyone in East Germany call a woman gnadige Frau, an old-fashioned term somewhere between "madam" and "my lady," and a Stasi colonel would not have addressed Christa during an interrogation as gnadigste. I would bet my last Deutschmark that in 1984 a correspondent of the West German newsmagazine Der Spiegel would not have talked of Gesamtdeutschland. This strikes me as more the vocabulary of the uprooted German aristocracy among whom the director and writer Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck grew up —both of his parents fled from the eastern parts of the Reich at the end of the Second World War—than that of the real East Germany in 1984.

But these objections are in an important sense beside the point. The point is that this is a movie. It uses the syntax and conventions of Hollywood to convey to the widest possible audience some part of the truth about life under the Stasi, and the larger truths that experience revealed about human nature. It mixes historical fact (several of the Stasi locations are real and most of the terminology and tradecraft is accurate) with the ingredients of a fast-paced thriller and love story.

It is a film, not a documentary. It's not perfect but so what? Even Don Giovanni has its flaws. To my mind it succeeds stunningly well as a film and I can't recommend it too highly.


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