The Lives of Others

The Lives of Others (Das Leben der anderen) (2006)

German with English subtitles

Florian Henkel von Donnersmarck, director


Relative newcomer screenwriter and director Florian Henkel von Donnersmarck makes a remarkably self-confident and promising debut with the tensely sublime film The Lives of Others. Having screened in Los Angeles in time to qualify for this year’s Oscar nomination process, and honored with seven Lolas (the German Oscar) and numerous other distinctions, The Lives of Others is a rare film achievement, arguably a “perfect” film for all time.

Set in the dour grays and yellows of the Soviet-era Stasi domestic police state both officially and euphemistically called the GDR [German Democratic Republic], Donnersmarck’s paean to Brechtian epic theater weaves a multilayered tapestry, a true-to-life portrait of life under relentless state surveillance. Reputing Ostalgie (nostalgic longing among former East Germans for the good old days of cradle-to-grave state-provided security), the director sets out to delineate in carefully observed and dramatically ironic detail the sobering realities of state-mandated domestic terrorism.

The year is 1984, for the West a time when George Orwell’s dystopic vision had found materiality behind the Iron Curtain. Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) is the pre-eminent playwright of East Germany (and implicitly the fictional successor to Bertolt Brecht, the original dramatist laureate of East Germany), pragmatically non-committal about his political allegiances, though a seemingly “clean,” faithful socialist citizen. (Donnersmarck laces his film with subtle commentary on faith, be it in the Soviet-style socialist system, the human heart, or the transformative power of art.)

Darkly good-looking in a Dirk Bogard manner, Dreyer shares a flat with his live-in girlfriend Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck, who appeared in Mostly Martha), East Germany’s most popular and successful stage actress, and a pill head. Dreyman and Sieland may be the bohemian royalty of East Berlin’s intelligentsia, but Sieland’s addiction darkly hints at what cost and foreshadows the irrational, erratic web constant surveillance weaves. Dreyman’s moral neutrality of convenience weakens upon the suicide of a close friend, a director blacklisted for his political views, and so he writes a scathing article about the scandalous suicide rate in the GDR (only Hungary has a higher rate), which he then has smuggled out to the West for publication in Der Spiegel, all the while somewhat naively still believing he actually is the only remaining playwright not under Stasi surveillance. All the while too, he remains oblivious to the fact that his girlfriend is being coerced into a one-sided sexual relationship with the Minister of Culture Bruno Hempf (Thomas Thieme), as loathsomely a Dostoevskian villain as they come. (Thieme may end up remembered for one-upping Rod Steiger’s Svidrigailov-inspired Komarovsky in Dr. Zhivago.)

At the heart of this film is steel-eyed, Prussian-stiff, true-believer Citizen Captain Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe). Mühe himself had been a stage actor in the former GDR and had been himself subject to domestic spying, no less than by his own wife, who refuted the charge. (Evidence from the obsessively thorough and vast archives of the Stasi made available to the public following the fall of the GDR made her accessory amply abundant.) Wiesler is a crack agent, the ideally loyal and faithful servant of the state. He is the embodiment of strict discipline, subjecting his individual will to the greater good. His virtuous nature will eventually prove his fatal flaw.

The seeds planted at the start of this film grow and bear strange and wondrous fruit. Early on a telling incident sets the tone: as Wiesler steps into the elevator of a typical, anonymous high-rise apartment block, a soccer ball rolls in, followed by the young boy who owns it. When the child asks the tall stranger if it’s true he works for the secret police, Wiesler reflexively takes the standard tack to assert state authority in response to any hint of authority questioned. “What is the name of…?” about to demand the name of the impudent citizen, “…of your ball?” he finally manages to say, both recovering himself and acting, perhaps for the first time, not in the interests of the state first, amazed at his own words. “You’re crazy,” the boy says, dashing off, “Balls don’t have names!” But the people who get kicked around in crazy games of power and control do.

The plot rises and tightens, at first unfolding as a melodrama. Minister Hempf, like many men of power, finds his power both an aphrodisiac and a personal prison. He has taken a shine to Maria-Christa Sieland, the (by East German standards) voluptuous star of the stage and darling of the intelligentsia, though he is no Jack Kennedy wooing starlet Marilyn Monroe. Since corrupt is as corrupt does, Hempf orders his underling, Lt. Col. Anton Grubitz (Ulrich Tukur), a natural politician eager to use anyone to get ahead, to plant a spy on the couple. Grubitz sends Wiesler in, confident something useful will turn up. It is not clear who exactly is being spied upon or for what specific reason. The deceptively sparing plotting grows suddenly dense and complex, offering a rich snapshot of the web of unintended complications in a society whose members all spy on each other. (The obvious parallels to the present post-9/11 America in passionate, if inept pursuit of finding terrorists everywhere is as unmistakable as the allusions to the McCarthyism of the previous Cold War-era US.)

The plot grows tendrils, seductive and treacherous, as it shifts to a psychological thriller. At its core, The Lives of Others is a character study, of the complex and dramatic battle that takes place within Wiesler. As the spy invades the intellectuals’ private lives, stripping them of their dignity in an attempt to strip them of their autonomy, Wiesler himself becomes enmeshed in their lives. How can he help but fall in love with fellow humans whom he comes to know, in some ways, more intimately than they know each other? Unlike the voyeurism of the film-goer, Wiesler’s allows, indeed seems to compel, engagement, actual intervention.

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Beverly Berning has recently begun her fourth career as a high school teacher of French and Italian, but her love of film remains steadfast. A former film student who aspired to be just like her idols Woody Allen, Erik Rohmer and Charlie Kaufman, she has been writing reviews for Culturevulture since 2006.