Directors with a recognizable style, like Steven Spielberg, Brian De Palma, and Oliver Stone, frequently get scolded for marking serious movie material with their gauche personal stamps. But at least those filmmakers have personalities, and the boldness to impose them. Writer-director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck gives his debut feature, The Lives Of Others, no particular style, and the absence of visual risk-taking renders an exciting premise ponderous and stolid.
Set in East Germany at the end of the communist era, The Lives Of Others deals with the Stasi's cruel and ultimately futile efforts to root out subversives through surveillance and interrogation. The film focuses on Ulrich Mühe, a secret-police officer who questions what constitutes subversion as he digs deeper into the life of seemingly devoted communist playwright Sebastian Koch. This is a terrific, suspenseful story about voyeurism and hypocrisy, but von Donnersmarck largely keeps the emotion at a distance, preferring to intellectualize the action rather than letting the audience fully feel what Mühe and Koch are going through.
In spite of that lapse, The Lives Of Others perseveres, thanks to the performances of the heartbreakingly stoic Mühe and the problematically heroic Koch, and thanks to a plot that keeps twisting in intriguing ways, chased down a winding path by the historical change we know is coming. As Mühe peers into Koch's life and learns all his contradictions—including his love for a woman who'll gladly sell him out to support her drug habit—the cop begins to stall the process of making an arrest, in part because he's no longer sure if Koch's association with known dissidents is really a criminal act, and in part because he can't bear to stop following the story.
It's almost painful to imagine what someone like De Palma or the Coen brothers could've done with this concept, using artful cross-cutting and rhyming compositions to keep the audience so wound up that they almost miss the political implications of what's going on. Instead, von Donnersmarck makes the meaning of every moment thuddingly clear, and doesn't move on until he's sure everyone's gotten it. It's ironic, really, that a movie about learning to appreciate the subtleties of human behavior is so disappointingly blunt.