The Lives of Others Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck

For about an hour, The Lives of Others threatens to be an actual movie. It’s a conventional one, with a sexy artists’ milieu and some evil East German officials you love to hate, but the central figure has possibilities. He’s Gerd Weisler (Ulrich Muhe), a lonely surveillance man who seems disconnected from both his own existence and the people whose lives he’s hired to ruin. Like Harry Caul in The Conversation, he’s a man with no life beyond his job and no way of relating to people, so his sudden living through one of his suspects promises to blossom into complexity. But once he starts getting involved in the witch-hunt for party favourite playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch), he ceases to be a complex figure and becomes the person you root for as he fudges reports in order to protect the man. Why does he do this? Nothing in his character up to that point suggests that he’d have this kind of a conscience, and more to the point, why don’t the authorities stop him when they get suspicious? It doesn’t matter, because by the time you’ve clued into the plot holes you’ve also figured out that the film has gotten grotesquely sentimental, bordering on camp. This was a huge hit in Germany, copping many of its home-grown Oscars, and no wonder — it’s the kind of serious-but-not drama that keeps telling you it’s about something while taking great pains to dumb down and simplify the elements that would actually make it relevant. If you’re a History Channel devotee, this might distract you from the stock footage parade, but anyone wanting a film with a purpose had better look elsewhere.