Do you remember those two Stakeout films with Emilio Estevez and Richard Dreyfuss? Of course you do; although only barely, since you've been trying to repress the memory ever since. Well, wrack your little grey-cells and rate them out of ten; say, from 0.8 to 0.95. If you then multiply your rating by ten you will arrive at the rating for another stakeout film, last year's The Lives Of Others. Das Leben der Anderen to its friends, or more pointedly, its comrades.
Leigh Paatsch, whose name suggests he might know a good German vilm when he sees one, rated it the best film of the year in yesterday's Herald Sun:
This supercharged psychological thriller marked only the first feature from young German writer-director Florian Henkel von Donnersmark. Filmmaking debuts rarely arrive so fully formed. Mind-bending twists and subtle shifts in tone were effortlessly deployed throughout a gripping portrait of life on the wrong side of the Berlin Wall in the 1980s. Hollywood is already labouring hard on a remake, but they won't get anywhere near the punsishing perfection here.
Fingers crossed Hollywood aren't looking at Stakeout as a template.
Broadly speaking, DLDA revolves around the lives of five people: actress Christa-Maria Sieland, playwright Georg Dreyman, Stasi officers Anton Grubitz and Gerd Wiesler, and politician Bruno Hempf.
The five are drawn together in a relatively simple plot: vat kat Hempf is obsessed with Christa-Maria and instructs Grubitz to "find something on" Dreyman so that he can have a clear run at Christa who he is already... well, pestering is too light a word. Grubitz in turn orders Wiesler, his top investigator, to set up a surveillance post in Dreyman's roof-space.
For various reasons I rate the likes of Narrow Margin, The Killing and Ride Lonesome as close to perfect films. They are not my favourite films, although I like them very much, it's just that they get it right. They contain no false steps; they are not too long; the scripts are tight; there is no unnecessary garnish.
DLDA is that sort of film.
The performances are astonishing. Sebastian Koch as Dreyman is probably the lesser of the five, but that's not of itself a bad thing since the other four are all brilliant. Martina Gedeck is sensational as Christa. Ulrich Mühe is startling as the "good" Stasi officer who develops a conscience. Mühe was an actor in East Germany in the 80s and lived the kind of life depicted in the film. (Allegedly, anyway, since his recollections are a matter of some contention.) Former stage actor Ulrich Tukur is sensational as Grubitz, the "bad" Stasi official with sense of humour; it's not a nice sense of humour, but it's a sense of humour nevertheless. And Thomas Thieme plays the horrendous Hempf. Have you seen Happiness? Well, recall Dylan Baker, the filthy rock-spider who molests kiddies... and recall the part of you that can't help but like him. The same goes for Minister Hempf.
The mood is klaustraphobic. Of course, this is East Germany, so you knew that going in. You know the Stasi are everywhere, you know what the main protagonists will be up to. But that doesn't make living it through a film any less of a completely enthralling experience in which there are no black and white resolutions.
Then there's the look of East Berlin. The GDR is often criticised as a cold grey place. It probably was. But on film I've always found it to be a strangely beautiful city. Obviously I wouldn't have wanted to live there, but the stark, damp, empty East Berlin streets that so often show up in the movies hold, for me, a strange allure.
If there's one DVD you get over Christmas, make it The Lives Of Others, one of the best films of this century, if not The Best. A great grey film. If nothing else it will keep you entertained when your crazy aunt starts on about that time you picked your nose on Santa's lap.