Film Review: Two Lives

Gripping spy drama based on true events about former East German spies uncovered when the Berlin Wall fell is high-quality big-screen entertainment. Word of mouth, reviews and another great performance from icon Liv Ullmann should assure traction.

So strong is Two Lives, a German-Norwegian co-production and Germany’s official entry for an Oscar foreign-language nomination, it made the Academy’s short list. As happens, the film was robbed of a final nomination and this Sunday will be the lesser without it.

Filmmaker Georg Maas, who fashioned his story from actual facts and Hannelore Hippe’s book, gives viewers plenty of suspense, brain-ticklers, surprises and atmosphere—just the menu for the art-house crowd who lined up for other Cold War “lives” in Germany’s 2006 Oscar winner The Lives of Others. And a little bit of nasty, real history thrown in doesn’t hurt.

The film ingeniously blends two extraordinary and related chapters of 20th-century German history. One chapter is the Nazi’s Lebensborn program that paired SS officers and Aryan women (also from occupied countries later in the war), tasked to produce the “racially pure” babies for the Fatherland the Nazis envisioned. The second, more recent chapter concerns the East German (GDR) Stasi (State Security) exploitation of the then-grown children (the former illegitimate “Nazi brats”) and their records from the Lebesnborn program that the Stasi used for their spying activities on both sides of the wall before it came down.

Two Lives, which uses frequent flashbacks to move its story across generations and countries, begins in 1990 when the Berlin Wall has just fallen and East Germany is no longer. Well, not quite, because Stasi archives have become available to the West and reveal new aspects of Communist history and spying. Among the scholars, government officials and legal noses combing the now-available files is reformist German-Norwegian lawyer Sven Solbach (Ken Duken).

In Norway on a now-peaceful home (even homey) front is Katrine (Juliane Köhler, star of Oscar-winner Nowhere in Africa and Downfall), also an issue of the Lebensborn program years before in Norway. But she was sent as a baby to Germany and raised in what was to become Communist East Germany where other “Nazi brats” ended up. But in 1990, Katrine, who has been reunited with her Norwegian mother Ase (Liv Ullmann), now enjoys a rich family life in Norway, where she lives in a quaint seaside town with her handsome and loving ship captain husband Bjarte (Sven Nordin), daughter Anne (Julia Bache-Wiig), and her mom. Ase, not exactly blameless, had, we are to believe, a relationship with a Nazi soldier in occupied Norway who fathered Katrine.

Katrine now has a successful graphic-design business and is in a lovely place (both geographically and spiritually) until Solbach comes into her life. A reformer at heart, he asks her and Ase to be witnesses in a case he champions against Norway in his effort to get reparations for war children like Katrine who were separated from their Norwegian mothers. Many of these children became stuck in what became East Germany, where travel to the West was forbidden.

But something’s rotten in the state of Norway and it’s not just the mysterious discovery of a woman’s body in the woods. With Solbach’s request, Katrine now emerges a shady figure, a desperate woman with a secret, and this development sends her on a tear. Disguised, she travels to Germany, gains access to the archives she needs and does some secret editing of papers that pertain to her.

Thus Two Lives, which could have been titled “Many Lies,” takes off down more sinister, twisty paths as mystery and intrigue build. People are not always what they seem, nor are their alliances. Heartache, lying, even murder are prices characters pay as the film moves to its unforgettable and surprising ending.

The story is somewhat complicated because some of the facts are. For instance, the “children of shame” or “SS rascals” or “Nazi brats” in East Germany could often be easy prey for recruitment as spies. Yet a number of spies that the Stasi would place in the West used stolen Lebensborn biographies for their identities in order to gain trust across the border.

Suspense in Two Lives grows unrelentingly, yet director Georg Maas craftily delivers enough moments of family interaction that both bring alive his characters and further cloak their underlying secrets and histories.

Performances all around and especially Ullmann’s and Köhler’s are terrific, locations are aptly chosen and the period settings convince. Two Lives adds up to the kind of immersive, intelligent entertainment many audiences crave and too rarely get.