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Directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
Starring: Martina Gedeck, Ulrich Mühe, Sebastian Koch
Review by John Corcoran
In 1984 East Berlin, an agent of the secret police, conducting surveillance on a writer and his lover, finds himself becoming increasingly absorbed by their lives.
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Totalitarian states thrive upon a certain horrific logic, as illustrated by the opening interrogation in The Lives of Others. When a prisoner insists he is innocent, his captor asks whether the prisoner believes the government would imprison innocent people. To answer yes would itself be a crime. To answer no is an implicit admission. Therefore, any person jailed by the regime must be guilty.
In The Lives of Others, that regime is the German Democratic Republic, and the interrogator posing that impossible dilemma is Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Muhe), an officer of the Secret Police, the infamous Stasi. At the behest of a government minister, Bruno Hempf (Thomas Thieme), Wiesler’s supervisor Colonel Grubitz (Ulrich Tukur) orders a playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) to be placed under survelance for possible subversive activities. The actual reason for Hempf’s interest in Dreyman is that he is a romantic rival for the affections of Christa-Marie Sieland (Martina Gedeck). Wiesler begins to eavesdrop on Dreyman and Christa-Marie, listening to every intimate moment and reporting to his supervisors.
In a film, that has changes in character as a dominant theme, director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck is masterful at revealing character through action rather than words. We are introduced to Wiesler teaching a class on interrogation techniques, intercut with images of the interrogation itself. Wiesler clinically informs the class how he can tell the prisoner is lying. The audiences is torn at being impressed with Wiesler’s skills and horrified at his methods. In another early scene, at a performance of Dreyman’s play, Wiesler hardly watches the action on stage, rather he monitors the relationships between the people both on-stage and off. The camera follows his view, from Dreyman to Hempf to Christa-Marie. He has drawn the connection between the players before he knew the romantic triangle existed. Note too, how Grubitz “cheats” off of Wiesler’s skills to appease Hempf. In this way, the film earns our trust in the characters’ relationships, because we are in the hands of a master.
The character of the mouse in this game is just as important. The film does not lionize Dreyman. In fact, he does not want to join the radical activities of his fellow artists. He is satisfied with his ability to work, even if he recognizes the regime’s failings. Only when a blacklisted friend commits suicide is he galvanized into action. Ultimately, Dreyman uses suicide, that death of hope, as his vehicle for embarrassing the GDR. As with Wiesler’s ability to read personal relationships, Dreyman’s ambivalence creates an intimacy with the audience. We are not awed by a self-sacrificing hero or political revolutionary. Rather we are watching someone like us, more concerned with our everyday lives until brutal injustice touches us and those we love.
The most important character though may be the East German regime itself – a society ruled by fear and mistrust. The population is kept under control by a mix of bribes and threats, and the most importantly the belief that government knows all. Those who cooperate with the Stasi receive “presents” for their service, while those who dare defy are harshly punished. The greatest power of the Stasi is how all-encompassing its powers seem to ordinary citizens. There is a dramatic scene where Christa-Marie describes the government’s authority over mind and body. Even the Stasi officers, such as Wiesler and Grubitz, are motivated more by fear than any sense of patriotism.
The film’s most powerful message is how art can change us by reconnecting our minds and souls. Wiesler has been leading a drab, emotionally unaware existence. He has no apparent family, and his life seems consumed with the duties of his despicable occupation. But through listening to Dreyman and Christa-Marie, their dreams and insecurities, Wiesler’s own humanity is touched. He acquires that relationship audiences have with artists, even if, as in this case, the artists are unaware of the audience.
“Writers are the engineers of the soul.” Much of The Lives of Others hinges upon that Stalin quotation. We are confronted with the moral responsibility of not just the artist but also the audience in the face of injustice. How often do we pretend not to see and hear the pain around us? Great art still has the power to highlight these wrongs, but it is up to the audience to right them. It may be a dream to believe that any man who honestly listens to art is a good man. But it is a dream worth believing.
THE LIVES OF OTHERS