Cast: Ulrich Mühe, Sebastian Koch, Martina Gedeck, Ulrich Tukur
Director: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
Runtime: 137 min.
Rating: ***** (Masterpiece)
Genre: Thriller, Drama
Hauptmann Wiesler doesn’t express much, doesn’t talk much, and if asked to install himself in the chair at the corner of the room facing the walls, he could sit longer than most folks would even think of. He’s the Stasi (the East German secret police) wiretapping expert, a pure believer in the Socialist regime and he sits, alone in a room, listening. A patriot. For hours together, for even the tiniest of detail missed in those tumultuous times could spell disaster. He has trained himself, probably beyond repair, for the single-minded dedication to his work. Probably, that’s the one thing he’s brilliant at. Identifying even the earliest evidence of a revolutionary idea, in people heading towards total disillusionment with the country. And then, those people aren’t a problem ever again. That is the theory. But ideas only inspire us; it is the lives that transform us.
Sitting there alone, listening to the life of an artist couple – one a great writer and the other a popular stage actress – Wiesler is the very picture of gradual discovery. He listens to their heartfelt love for each other, and clutches his chair, mesmerized. Through him, Ulrich Mühe creates one of the most memorable performances of any year in recent memory. His face registers every single step towards the discovery of love, happiness, freedom – pretty much the entire gamut of life. He probably needs someone to hug him, with unabashed love, and tell him clutching his shoulders, that there’s good within him waiting to be discovered. Someone later in the picture does more than just that, he acknowledges it. The triumph on Wiesler’s face, of infinite subtlety, is a wonder to behold. And that is how I guess the Berlin wall came down on November 9th, 1989, not in a moment of heated passion but slowly, gradually in several moments of simmering emotions, brick for brick.
Morality in cinema is often a prey to easy decisions. The Nazi officer, or the Soviet bureaucrat or the Stasi agent simply cannot be any other than bad. If he is good, then he’s against the system. It is a moral quandary, you know, for how can goodness prevail being part of such a system. 33-year old Mr. von Donnersmarck showcases an awe-inspiring level of maturity and intellect, and in dealing with the subject he never for once takes the route of clichéd opinion. I have been wrong previously, on two counts, when I mentioned this film in my list of the best films of 2006 – one it ought to be higher on the list, and two, Wiesler isn’t a case of transformation. And both of them had to do with conclusions made on my end after just one viewing, something this film doesn’t need in the least. It is a picture that is breathtakingly layered – political, emotional, moral – each of them to be enjoyed, felt and discovered over multiple occasions.
The film opens with Wiesler describing to a class how pertinent it is to grind the accused during an interrogation for long hours, to excavate the secret out of him. It is set in 1984, and it is not a coincidence if you hear the echo of Orwell’s 1984. Probably the emotional complexity of The Conversation too. And maybe just the tiniest bit of Casablanca’s romance. The principal characters, and especially the two men, are individuals of supreme faith and principles, as much are realistically possible. But then, one doesn’t know the boundaries which separate the realistic and idealistic. They do what they do, not out of sympathy, not out of change of character but because of their beliefs. Because, in an ever changing world true characters, like true individuals, grow.
The film has been written by von Donnersmarck himself. It is an extremely detailed picture, both visually and by the word, and he directs it with a great narrative insight. Consider the sequence where they bug the artist’s house for the first time. As Wiesler waits outside their building for a whole day, recording their every movement, it sets the principal character without even spelling a single word. He summons tension from thin air, with a soft but sure score on the back, but that is the last thing on his mind. With the same assurance, and what the film aims for is charting the emotional path, and it is the sign of a great career when you realize the film is not playing to you but has absorbed and engulfed you within it. No matter what direction it turns, it will be affecting you.
Look, I do not want to spoil the joy any further, and I’m satisfied I have given away the bare minimum of the plot. If there’re things left undiscussed as a result of that, so be it. This film is intriguing, complex but an achievement in narration. Discover it, and discover how moving an experience it is. There aren’t many times you will find me begging you, on my knees to go and watch a film. Mark it in your diary if you want to, but before that please visit one of the great motion pictures of recent times. It is a wonder we’re opening to foreign language films other than the ones in English, and when it does with as memorable a film as this, you ought not to miss it. And especially not, for one remarkable performance that do not come every year.
Ulrich Mühe probably found the inspiration from his life, because he was himself under the surveillance of the Stasi. He was one of the active members against the Communist regime and denounced it in a memorable address at Alexanderplatz on 4 November 1989. His second wife, Jenny Gröllmann, was registered as an informant during the Cold War, an "Inoffizieller Mitarbeiter" (unofficial collaborator). When asked how he prepared for his role, his answer was – “I remembered.” Simple, and profound. No award is too great for a performance of this kind. Mühe died in July 2007.