Thursday, 18 December 2014

Alternate Best Actor 2006: Ulrich Mühe in The Lives of Others

Ulrich Mühe did not receive an Oscar nomination, despite being nominated for BAFTA, for portraying Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler in The Lives of Others.

The Lives of Others is an excellent film set in East Berlin still under communist control which depicts the monitoring of one writer.

Ulrich Mühe plays Wiesler who we are introduced to as a member of the secret police while he conducts a class to young recruits in training. He is instructing the class through the use of recording of his own successful interrogation of a man accused of being an enemy of the state. Mühe is fantastic in the way he instantly establishes Wiesler's nature at the beginning of the film. Mühe portrays him as the strict authoritarian perfect for his position as a Stasi agent. In the interrogation scene Mühe carries himself with such a striking coldness. There's no sympathy in his eyes just a piercing gaze as he stares right through the man who is he is quickly breaking down under his scrutiny. Mühe keeps a similar reserve in the classroom as he teaches the students with the same strict professionalism. He's particularly good in the quick moment when one student voices dismay at the interrogation and Mühe portrays the lack of hesitation as Wiesler puts a mark next to the students name to keep record of such a remark.

Mühe in addition to this portrays Wiesler as an extreme introvert. Mühe seems to keep everything strictly calculated within Wiesler as even the way he walks seems to be something specific and coded for his own protection. In these early scenes Mühe makes Wiesler basically the perfect tool for such a regime that wishes for mindless devotion and service without a hint of individual thought. Mühe plays Wiesler as barely a man, but rather just a cog in the organization. There's nothing particularly human about he does and there is almost no emotion in him as he performs his duty. Mühe rather brilliantly creates a man, who already would have trouble interacting with the outside world, being only shown a certain way of life that prides itself in constant suspicion and secrecy. Mühe gives us such a man, and he's particularly great in his interactions with his superior. Although they technically are suppose to friends Mühe still shows Wiesler never losing sight of his task as he only seems to interact when its his turn to advise on policy.

Wiesler is released from his oddly sheltered life though when he is assigned to monitor a seemingly apolitical writer Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch). At the beginning of the surveillance Mühe keeps Wiesler still very much the operative he should be. As he initially bugs the house Mühe portrays Wiesler going about his job with the utmost precision without a hint of feeling as he makes preparations basically to ruin someone's life. This disregard for a normal humanity continues as Wiesler begins his routine of listening in on Dreyman's life basically just waiting until there is something for which they can arrest him for. Mühe not only portrays a lack of empathy in Wiesler but even a certain venom in the man's mind as though Wiesler just desires to see this enemy punished. While the monitoring continues we are given a glimpse of Wiesler's personal life, or more correctly the lack thereof. Mühe is very honest in portraying Wiesler very much out of his element in the real world, and suggests just a sad lonely man waiting until his next monitoring session.

Wiesler though does not stay on this course though as he learns that the real reason for the inquiry into Dreyman is his relationship with an actress Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck), who is lusted after by a powerful official. Mühe does not portray the malice as suddenly leaving Wiesler though as can be seen when he purposefully causes Dreyman to see Christa-Maria being used sexually by the official, and in that moment Mühe keeps that disregard for anyone. The exposure of normal interaction between people, opposed to interrogating prisoners and spending time with other similair individuals, something seems to happen in Wiesler. Mühe's performance technically becomes almost dialogue free as there are large stretches of the film where we just see him listening to Dreyman's life and file the proper reports about what he hears. Mühe manages to make something so compelling though merely through his almost silent reactions as the monitoring continues. Mühe's performance though is particularly effective because the change in Wiesler is so delicately handled.

Mühe is outstanding by showing the process of Wiesler's growing involvement. At first, after he loses his callousness, Mühe does suggest an investment but with a certain distance. Mühe conveys the interest in Wiesler not to be that of one human being caring about another, but rather at first as though Wiesler is merely listening to an interesting story on the radio. Mühe though slowly grows this fascination in Wiesler which seems to become stronger as it is his only true contact with the outside world, the most we see of Wiesler in a personal setting is having sex with a prostitute. Mühe is great in that scene though by rather honestly showing the desperation in Wiesler to reach out, as he asks the prostitute simply to spend more time with him, and Mühe makes it particularly understandable why he would be caught up in Dreyman's story. The greatness of Mühe's performance is the natural and extremely subtle way though he shows the slow change as he continues to listen even when it becomes obvious that Dreyman will be committing an act against the state.

What is so remarkable about Mühe's work is that he earns every moment of Wiesler somewhat improbable transformation. Mühe not only make Wiesler's growing empathy believable. Mühe is wonderful as he expresses the heartbreak, perhaps better than actually suffering the heartbreak, as Wiesler hears about the losses in Dreyman's life. The scene where Dreyman plays a song for his friends death is made most moving not through what Dreyman does, but just Mühe beautiful reactions as he shows Wiesler being truly changed by what he hears. Wiesler becomes so involved though that he even makes contact with Christa-Maria in a bar. Mühe shows Wiesler put on a slight act as though he is just fan, but portrays such earnest emotion as tries to propel here out of despair. Wiesler's investment though causes him to hide Dreyman's activities and Wiesler himself comes under suspicion. To prove his loyalty Wiesler has to interrogate Christa-Maria to find the whereabouts of Dreyman's hidden typewriter. Mühe is perfect in this scene as he partially returns to the old Wiesler to interrogate, but with a noticeable and powerful difference. Now you see in his eyes how it shames him to have to break her especially since she obviously remembers him from before. I love this performance by Ulrich Mühe as his quiet work is what makes the film work. He creates the  portrait of such a man finding humanity both convincing and poignant.

15 comments:

GetDonaldSutherlandAnOscar said...

How close do you think he was to a nomination? It's a disgrace that Will Smith (whose performance I do kinda like) got in over the likes of Mühe and Bale.

Also has 2006 proved to be one of the strongest years for you so far? In terms of films.

Anyway having just re watched this I can quite confidently say, though I love Bale, Owen, Whittaker, Mühe is my winner now. As for Best Picture I'm torn between this, The Prestige and Pan's Labrinyth.

I hope you'll consider Koch for alt support. Wonderful review Louis, I really felt the emotion coming through.

Anonymous said...

Thoughts and ratings on the rest of the cast?

Anonymous said...

Louis, what are your thoughts and ratings on Blanchett in Notes on a Scandal? I really liked her, but I think that her breakdown doesn't really fit the character of Sheba.

luke higham said...

Louis: So glad you loved him Louis,
Your ratings & thoughts for the rest of the cast, with exceptions.

koook160 (Robert MacFarlane) said...

Hey Louis, have you seen INLAND EMPIRE or Sherrybaby yet? They might fill out a few slots on your Lead Actress ballot for 2006.

JackiBoyz said...

Since you loved Watts in The Pierced Veil, what were your thoughts on the rest of the cast Louis and did you like the film?

koook160 (Robert MacFarlane) said...

Can you give a rating and thoughts on Ron Eldard in House of Sand and Fog? You've only briefly alluded to your disliked for him in that movie.

Anonymous said...

Thoughts/ratings on Kennan Wynn, Peter Bull, Slim Pickens, and James Earl Jones in Dr Strangelove

luke higham said...

Louis: What are your top 20 foreign language films.

Louis Morgan said...

GetDonaldSutherlandAnOscar:

Mühe it seems got the needed support much too late since he was nominated for BAFTA for 2007 and the film had already qualified for 06 in the US.

Yes 2006 is rather strong year.

I consider Koch co-lead.

Anonymous:

Koch - 3.5(He is overshadowed by Mühe's performance but he's good as well. It's interesting in many ways Koch does a good job of building up a scene even though almost all of the pivotal moments belong to Mühe. He gives a honest performance as his character technically is just being himself the entire time)

Tukur - 3.5(He's good in combining an apparent warmth yet with the coldheartedness of the state. He has an interesting chemistry with Mühe and is effective how he slowly builds Grubitz's suspicions of Wiesler)

Thieme - 3(He's relatively simple but gives a nicely grotesque, without going over the top, portrayal of a pig with power)

Anonymous:

Blanchett - 3(I usually like her but I did not really care for her here. It's not that she's really bad most of the time. Most of the time she's fine and I do think she's genuinely good in her scenes as she shows how she allows herself to be manipulated by Dench's character. My problems arise in that Blanchett does not seem to even have a clue why she goes into the affair. Yes it does not be told obviously and the character's not really suppose to know, but it never felt as Blanchett even gave a vague reason in her work. Also I thought her breakdown scene was close to being atrocious)

Robert:

I ought to give those films a watch.

Eldard - 1(This was a performance where I just did not believe him for a second. Everything was a bit over the top when he trying to be intimating and was a bit bland when he was trying to moving)

JackiBoyz:

I was rather surprised how much I liked the film actually. It technically is a fairly standard story but I thought it told it really well.

Norton - 4(I thought he was rather good in portraying this very withdrawn sort and I thought he went just far enough with the timid accent he uses. What I liked most was the way he and Watts naturally created a chemistry throughout the film as they start out having none)

Jones - 4(Often there seems to be just something interesting about him, and that's the case here. This is old-fashioned character actor work, and I mean that in a good way. Jones brings a lot of life in his work and you feel as though his character has his own full story worth telling)

Rigg - 3(Slight work from here but as usual she has a strong presence and still makes an impact)

Wong - 2.5(He's good at doing the cold soldier routine, but I wish he had actually something to do other than be somewhat imposing)

Schreiber - 3(His role is very much to the point but he does it well. He brings the needed charm to make the affair believable. He also does a nice job of making his character a jerk while still showing where he's coming from)

Louis Morgan said...

Anonymous:

Wynn - 4.5(A great one scene wonder. Wynn is so hilariously, yet so comfortably, restrained in his depiction of military insanity that's not quite same as Scott's or Hayden. It's amazing that he could find a never way, but Wynn does. His expression is just perfect and almost every one of his lines is pure gold)

Pickens - 4(As insanity goes he's the least entertaining to me, but that's only because of how great Scott, Hayden and Wynn are. Pickens is still a lot of fun himself giving a properly absurd portrayal of a cowboy pilot)

Bull - 3.5(I suppose I need to mark off a half a point for breaking character. That had to have been Bull's best take around Sellers considering Kubrick's perfectionism. Nevertheless Bull is an entertaining in his straight yet absurd portrayal of an excessive Soviet coldness)

Jones - 3(He does not get to do much other than show off a bit of his vocal chops. He does well though in the very strict confines he's in)

Luke:

PREPARE FOR KUROSAWA!!!!!

1. Rashomon
2. High and Low
3. Seven Samurai
4. The Samourai
5. Yojimbo
6. Ikiru
7. Das Boot
8. Throne of Blood
9. I Saw The Devil
10. The Wages of Fear
11. The Lives of Others
12. Sanjuro
13. Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon
14. Les Diaboliques
15. The Bicycle Thieves
16. The Sword of Doom
17. Children of Paradise
18. Letters From Iwo Jima
19. Stray Dog
20. Old Boy

John Smith said...

You really need to see some Bergman movies Louis and i would like your toughts on Denchs performance in Notes On A Scandal

luke higham said...

John: His Thoughts on Dench are on the Jackman/Bale Review Post.

Louis Morgan said...

John Smith:

That is true.

John Smith said...

Thanks Luke (: