Film Review: ‘The Man on the Other Side’ Delivers a Sharply Crafted Spy Thriller Drenched in Irresistible Intrigue4 min readReading Time: 3 minutes
It is 1974, and in the Cold War paranoia of East and West Germany, it can be dangerous to know too much. But time is running out for Sophie Zimmermann. She is being hunted and the only way to survive is to find out the identity of The Man On The Other Side!
Director: Marcus Lim
Cast: Mari Bensel, James Carney, Nils Schulz
Language: German, English
Runtime: 85 minutes
The Man on the Other Side is solid proof of an often-forgotten truth in filmmaking — a steep budget and expensive equipment aren’t necessary to a great film as long as there is an engaging story, and a clear passion to materialise it. As a spy thriller, the film masterfully uses its intimate scale to bring out the crux of its drama. As a Singaporean-made film, it’s an exceedingly refreshing entry into the pantheon of local cinema that marvels with its ambition and deft.
Set in Germany 1974, The Man on the Other Side finds Sophie Zimmermann (Mari Bensel), a secretary working in a West German ministry, captured and contained in a shack by the Stasi. She is soon ordered by the East German secret police agency to interrogate and obtain information from an English abductee (James Carney) while figuring out her lover Dieter’s (Nils Schulz) role in all of this.
The Man on the Other Side mainly unspools through the conversation between Sophie and the Englishman, and through their flashbacks of the recent past. While there are only but a few film locales in total with little to no action sequences, these hardly feel like limitations. If anything, these infuse a sense of grittiness and claustrophobia that only heightens the drama.
The film conveys a less glamorous yet far more realistic and horrifying view of the espionage world through the lens of everyday people who want nothing more than to live their lives. Every stake, every attempt at escape, and every new information feels earned due to how grounded the film comes across.
Keeping audiences invested is a delectable mystery based around romance and deception. Here, The Man on the Other Side again shows finesse with a script that works around its small cast. The film presents itself as a tale of survival rather than priming audiences to expect twists and turns; the latter might have gone in expected directions given the story’s handful of characters.
Another advantage of its humanistic approach is with how the story bypasses any need to understand its historical context. This is furthered by the cast’s solid performance, each offering their own standout moments throughout.
Bensel’s performance as Sophie does much of the story’s heavy lifting by being the centre of its mystery while bringing across how and why Romeo Spies were so effective during the Cold War. It may seem absurd today how someone could be seduced and convinced to betray their country but how Bensel brings across Sophie’s emotional vulnerability — despite her tenacity and fearlessness — offers glimpses why.
Storytelling and context aside, The Man on the Other Side also does well in recreating the style of 1970s cinema with Kodachrome colours, period-specific zooms, and frame-filling closeups. The film’s approach is lean and proficient, with careful sound design setting an unsettling tone and shying away from exuberant shots for crisp, simple framing that places performances front and centre.
Perhaps The Man on the Other Side’s greatest achievement is with the excitement it brings by the end credit. Despite the limited locales, how the story unfolds and concludes clamours for even more to be unearthed and told by its characters. The local film accomplishes so much exactly because of what it could work with. It simply refuses to be paralysed by any limitations.
The Man on the Other Side will have two upcoming screenings on 5 and 20 February. Tickets for the 5 February screening have already sold out so grab yours for 20 February before they’re all gone!