For 44 years, East Germany was one of the most closed and proscribed societies that the world has ever seen, with its leaders holding an iron-like grasp on the minds and lives of the citizens. The government’s instrument for exerting this control was the secret police, the Stasi. They were the Gestapo perfected – indeed, those who set up the Stasi were trained by the Gestapo. While Fascism and Communism were diametrically opposed, they did meet at repressing the individuality of their respective populations. The organization had less than two thousand employees, but they had thousands of informants who fed them information about their neighbors and social contacts.
Life was very different for the leaders of the Socialist Unity Party (SED). As with the leadership of the USSR, they had access to all the luxuries their people were denied. No one said no to them, not unless the person wanted to disappear into a Stasi prison. Then the whole construction imploded when the Berlin Wall fell on November 9, 1989. In a nearly bloodless revolution of the people, the SED were kicked out of power and eventually Germany reunified. The headquarters of the Stasi and all of its files on East German citizens were opened to the public.
Fifteen years after the fall of East Germany, filmmaker Florian Henckel Von Donnersmarck confronted the legacy of those times brilliantly in The Lives of Others. The movie begins in 1985 with a Stasi captain, Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Muhe), replaying an interview with a suspect for a training class at the Stasi’s academy. The suspect’s neighbor fled to the West and the captain believes the man assisted in the escape. The scene is a brief but brilliant introduction into the world you’re entering.
Wiesler is a mid-level drone who is totally dedicated to his work. He lives in a tiny apartment without a single personal touch, hardly more than a motel room. Even his wardrobe is composed of different tones of gray. His superior, Colonel Anton Grubitz (Ulrich Tukur) invites him to the theater to watch a play by Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch). Dreyman is a darling of the party leadership and the only playwright they have whose work is respected in the West. Wiesler’s reaction to Dreyman is that he should be under surveillance, which Grubitz calls ridiculous. But when Grubitz meets with Culture Minister Bruno Hempf (Thomas Thieme) and is asked his opinion of Dreyman, he cautiously repeats Wiesler’s suggestion and receives the Minister’s support. At the same time, Wiesler, watching Dreyman through opera glasses, realizes he’s involved with the star of the play, Crista-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck).
Soon Wiesler has set up a listening station in the attic of Dreyman’s building and, in the course of his investigation, he realizes that Minister Hempf’s reason for denouncing Dreyman is purely carnal. He’s been having an affair with Crista-Maria and wants his rival out of the way. Wiesler attempts to increase the pressure on Dreyman by having him discover the affair, but Dreyman’s reaction is completely different from what Wiesler expects. Wiesler is drawn into his subjects’ lives, and, when Dreyman begins to question his commitment to the regime after the suicide of a friend, Wiesler becomes his silent accomplice.
Muhe is a wonder to watch in the role of Wiesler, with his hooded eyes that at first betray nothing but eventually reveal everything. The actor himself grew up in East Germany and had, after the regime’s fall, looked at his Stasi file. He was surprised to find he’d been under loose surveillance ever since he was a college student, and that several people he thought of as friends had informed on him. (Sadly, Muhe passed away in 2007, though not before he received his deserved accolades for this role.) As Dreyman, Sebastian Koch makes the playwright’s change from the party’s pet to its anonymous but effective critic both reasonable and understandable. Before his suicide, Dreyman’s friend gives him a piece of music entitled Sonata for a Good Man. In one crucial scene, Dreyman plays the piece while Wiesler listens in the attic. Koch, who doesn’t play the piano, practiced four hours a day for weeks until he could play the piece. (The scene was the inspirational starting point that von Donnersmarck used in writing the screenplay.) As Crista-Maria, Matina Gedeck is the world of East Germany in microcosm. While beautiful and successful, she is worn down by the pressure of her life and turns to drugs simply to function. She’s too filled with fear to rebel, yet it leaves her just as filled with revulsion at her weakness. It is a visceral performance.
This is an espionage story, as gripping as anything written by John le Carre. Here, though, the espionage is being committed against the country’s own people by its leaders. The film is filled with small moments beautifully realized that become huge within the canvas of the movie. Early on in The Lives of Others, Grubitz tells Wiesler that regardless what might be said, people don’t change. Yet the movie hinges on Wiesler’s change as he realizes that he still has a soul.
This was the movie that beat out Pan’s Labyrinth as Best Foreign Language film. At first I was disappointed, until I saw this film. Both are exceptional and showcase the power of the cinema to touch our own souls. If you missed this film in the theaters, be sure to put it on your video viewing list.