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Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's The Lives of Others, now available on DVD, is the best feature film debut by a director since Orson Welles's Citizen Kane. Coming it seemed out of nowhere and defying all the conventional wisdom of the motion picture industry, Donnersmarck achieved a remarkable commercial and critical success with his first full-length film, culminating when it won the Oscar for Best Foreign Picture of 2006.
The Lives of Others fully deserves all the awards it garnered. Evidently a perfectionist, Donnersmarck created a film that is near perfect in every respect. It deals seriously and profoundly with an important but sadly neglected subject—communist tyranny in East Germany—and the screenplay Donnersmarck carefully crafted over several years does full justice to his central theme of injustice. Contractually in full control of the production, Donnersmarck worried endlessly over the details and got them all right—historically and aesthetically. With creative costuming, location scouting, and artistic design, his production team captured the look and feel of the DDR (the German Democratic Republic) in the 1980s, above all in the predominantly grey color scheme of the film that subliminally establishes how drab and bleak life was under communist rule in the East. The musical score similarly contributes to the atmospheric quality of the film. The composer Gabriel Yared does not go in for grand and obvious musical effects, but he is operatic in one respect: by subtly employing Wagnerian leitmotifs, he underlines crucial moments in the drama and helps to structure it.
Above all, for a low-budget production, The Lives of Others is extravagantly cast (impressed by Donnersmarck's screenplay, the actors and actresses worked for a fraction of their normal fees). The leading roles are all filled to perfection, and Donnersmarck pestered major German-speaking performers to play the minor roles, with the result that some of the actors turn in impressive ...