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7 Movies like The Lives of Others: Surveillance, Secrecy, Sacrifice

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Jonny_Sweet_itcher_contributorWere you fascinated by HGW’s metamorphosis from an emotionless, calculating caterpillar of the Stasi into a compassionate, caring butterfly of the people? Do you revel in tense, political thrillers set inside a cruel and unforgiving world? Do the themes of guilt, paranoia and sacrifice float your cinematic boat? If you answered ‘yes’ to any or all of these questions, be sure to check out ‘The Conversation’, ‘Missing’ or any of these other fantastic movies like ‘The Lives of Others’. ~ Jonny Sweet

From Francis J Underwood to Eugene Simonet

It’s perhaps fitting that Ulrich Mühe bears a distinct resemblance to Kevin Spacey, given his character’s evolution through the full gamut of Spacey’s career. Mühe starts out as the bad bastard with which Spacey has become synonymous through his roles such as Buddy Ackerman in ‘Swimming with Sharks’ and Frank Underwood in ‘House of Cards’ – not to mention a whole host of others I don’t dare mention for fear of spoiling some deftly-crafted plot twists.

From there, he passes through the confused and childlike Robert Porter from ‘K-Pax’, the disillusioned and depressed Lester Burnham from ‘American Beauty’ before finally winding up as the benevolent and world-improving Eugene Simonet from ‘Pay It Forward’. Oh, and there’s obviously a dash of Stannis Baratheon thrown in for good measure, too.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: This intro has taken an unpredictable and quite frankly uncalled for swerve in the direction of Spacey’s acting career. If you’d like to know more about Mühe’s illustrious career and even more interesting life, check out this excellent obituary on the actor from the Guardian.

If you enjoy watching such fascinating character transformations executed perfectly by impeccable actors – particularly in situations as taut and fraught with danger as Stasi Germany – check out this list of films like ‘The Lives of Others’ below.


Movies Similar to ‘The Lives of Others’…

‘The Conversation’ (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974)

More than 30 years before HGW was eavesdropping on a pair of targeted lovers in Stasi Germany, Harry Caul was doing exactly the same in downtown San Francisco.

Here, the ever-flawless Gene Hackman plays a meticulous but mistrustful surveillance agent who suffers a crisis of conscience after suspecting his latest marks may be in mortal danger.

Similarity Match: 90%
Surveillance, guilt and self-sacrifice all play a key role in both ‘The Lives of Others’ and ‘The Conversation’ – though the latter plays far more with ideas of perception and paranoia than the former.

‘Missing’ (Costa-Gavras, 1982)

Allegedly based on true events, ‘Missing’ features the brilliant Jack Lemmon as a distressed father who flies to Chile, recently fallen to the fascist regime of General Pinochet, to enquire after the disappearance of his journalist son.

Like Mühe, Lemmon is master of gradual transformation as we witness his character’s faith in the US government slowly disintegrate before our eyes.

Similarity Match: 80%
Though the plots of ‘Missing’ and ‘The Lives of Others’ diverge significantly, they both take place in hostile and dictatorial environments laden with paranoia and tension.

‘Life Is Beautiful’ / ‘La vita è bella’ (Roberto Benigni, 1997)

Unsurprisingly, this tour-de-force from Italy scooped four gongs at the 71st Oscars, with director and star Benigni achieving the rare feat of being nominated in both categories (he did win Best Actor).

In it, the perennial clown tries to spare his son from the horrors of a Jewish concentration camp through the heart-breaking role of jester.

Similarity Match: 75%
The protagonists in ‘Life Is Beautiful’ and ‘The Lives of Others’ both try to save others from the horrors of a merciless regime, though they sit on opposite sides of the political divide.

‘The Secret in Their Eyes’ / ‘El secreto de sus ojos’ (Juan José Campanella, 2009)

A quarter of a century prior to the present day, federal agent Benjamín Espósito is tasked with locating the rapist and murderer of a young housewife in the Argentinian capital of Buenos Aires.

25 years on, he is completing an autobiographical book about the case, and in the process he digs up long-buried feelings for former colleagues and disturbing truths about humanity.

Similarity Match: 70%
Both ‘The Lives of Others’ and ‘The Secret in Their Eyes’ are films focused on the surveillance of a suspect, but while the former is a study in the human character, the latter is a more traditional cat-and-mouse cop thriller.

‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’ (Tomas Alfredson, 2011)

This adaptation of the John le Carré classic features a knock-out cast, including the likes of John Hurt, Tom Hardy, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Strong and of course, Gary Oldman.

In it, Oldman plays washed-up spy George Smiley, who is brought out of retirement to source a mole in the upper echelons of the British Secret Service.

Similarity Match: 65%
‘The Lives of Others’ and ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’ both deal with themes of espionage and surveillance in atmospheres of fear and deception, though the plotline of the latter is far more complicated and unpredictable than the former.

‘Road to Perdition’ (Sam Mendes, 2002)

Another star-studded cast (Tom Hanks, Daniel Craig, Paul Newman, Stanley Tucci, Jude Law) tells the graphic novel story of Michael Sullivan, the right hand man of a mob boss who inadvertently becomes the target of his peers after the botched killing of a disgruntled associate.

Similarity Match: 60%
‘Road to Perdition’ is far more action-packed and stylised than ‘The Lives of Others’, but both feature dignified protagonists trying to atone for past sins in a corrupt and cold-hearted world.


If You Like ‘The Lives of Others’, You Will Like…

Though the following suggestion shares little in common with ‘The Lives of Others’ in terms of plot, characterisation, or style, it features similar themes of guilt, mistrust and uncertainty in a highly volatile period in Germany’s history.

Therefore, it might prove interesting to those who enjoyed the setting and subject matter of the 2006 masterpiece.

‘The White Ribbon’ / ‘Das weiße Band-Eine deutsche Kindergeschichte’ (Michael Haneke, 2009)

The setting is the fictional and extremely puritanical town of Eichwald in northern Germany, immediately prior to the outbreak of the First World War.

Amidst the stringent religious rule, unexplained goings-on baffle the local populace and the audience to boot.

Whereas ‘The White Ribbon’ deals with mysterious events leading up to the outbreak of WWI in a small German town, ‘The Lives of Others’ focuses on the more clear-cut but equally compelling fall-out from WWII in a big city – but both deal with the topics of innocence and guilt in intriguing ways.


Other Lives Less Ordinary…

Of course, another hugely popular film which might fit the bill for this list is ‘Schindler’s List’, dealing as it does with a man who sacrifices much to save many. When it comes to war films centring around Nazi Germany and its aftermath, there is also ‘The Pianist’, ‘Downfall/Der Untergang’ and countless others… but I felt they were either too famous or too far removed from ‘The Lives of Others’ to merit a mention proper.

That’s not to say this list is an exhaustive one, however; can you think of more titles worthy of inclusion?

If so, pop them in the comments box below.

I′m Jonny, an English Literature graduate who decided careers and mortgages were too mundane, and travelling, film, music and books were much more enticing. I have recently made a very comfortable nest for myself in Santiago de Chile, and on itcher Mag where I regularly contribute eloquent waffle on all manner of media.
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