The Lives of Others (2006) / Drama-Thriller
aka Das Leben der Anderen
MPAA Rated: R for sexuality, nudity, and language
Running Time: 137 min.
Cast: Sebastian Koch, Ulrich Muhe, Martina Gedeck, Ulrich Tukur, Thomas Thieme, Hans-Uwe Bauer, Volkmar Kleinert, Matthias Brenner, Charly Hubner
Director: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
Screenplay: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
A terrific debut film for writer-director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, The Lives of Others is set in the years just prior to the destruction of the Berlin Wall, at the height of the secret police (the Stasi, as they are known in East Germany) intrusiveness into the personal lives of anyone they suspected of having a dissenting or obstructionist position against the government. They had the power to incarcerate any citizens they saw as dangers, greatly diminish their quality of life, or even separate them from their families for good.
Much of the action is two-fold, primarily following a tenacious Stasi captain known as Gerd Wiesler (Muhe, Funny Games), who just about wrote the book on efficient surveillance and interrogation techniques. He rises quickly in the ranks, ultimately landing a very important assignment involving playwright Georg Dreymann (Koch, Black Book), rumored by his superior to have anti-communist sentiments. Unbeknownst to Dreymann, his actress girlfriend, Christa-Marie (Gedeck, Mostly Martha), is giving away her body (ironically, to protect him) to the man who commissioned the wiretapping on Dreymann's apartment, Minister Bruno Hempf (Thieme). What wasn't planned is for Wiesler to come to care for the people he is trying to find fault with, conflicted in his loyalty to his country and his kinship from afar to people he admires.
The tempo of the film is slow, building up the characters methodically, allowing the natural state of the oppressiveness by which these people live to encompass every facet of their lives. It's a multifaceted story, with interesting ironies. Christa-Marie sleeps with Minister Hempf under the belief that she is protecting Georg, when all the while, Hempf's reliance upon her may be the catalyst for Georg's potential downfall. Meanwhile, the coldness of the Stasi invasion into the lives of the artists they deem as potentially dangerous makes for some interesting commentary on the nature of the power of art. While Wiesler is trying to take down one of the great East German playwrights, he starts to make up a form of fictional story of his own, essentially drafting a play about the making of a play that never really existed except in the mind of one affected Stasi agent. A black mark is placed for a student who wonders if Wiesler's tactics may be inhumane, but it is ultimately Wiesler's humanity that causes great conflicts, undermining the effectiveness of the techniques he so rabidly would uphold.
Although many would have had a tendency to make overt political statements and to beg moral questions, von Donnersmarck sees this more as a character piece, viewing these players as victims of circumstance. Their beliefs hold only so long as they are dictated to them by their respective roles in society. They do whatever they can in order to keep being what they think they are born to be -- Christa-Marie would do anything to continue as a performer, Georg as a writer, and Wiesler as a secret police agent, and yet, they willingly compromise their own beliefs and status in order for the others to exist, creating many internal conflicts among the characters and their loyalties to those whom they trust.
The Lives of Others may be methodical and calculating for much of the duration, with characters that constantly hide their feelings, but von Donnersmarck's most understated stroke happens to be to get us to actually care about them. You may not realize it until the final few scenes but these feelings were always there crawling in the back of our subconscious, as we watch in earnest a "good citizen" turn into a traitor to his country, and the tragedy of traitors who think they are doing their duty but only find ways to do harm to their fellow comrades.
Living in such oppressive conditions, the suicide rates shot sky high, as people could no longer face a life where they could not be who they wanted to be, live with those they love, and feel even a moment's freedom to express themselves in a manner they truly desire for fear of losing everything. Von Donnersmarck never, not once, gets into sermon territory about the evils of a communist state. In this subtle peek into the stifling conditions felt by those living in a country so immersed in paranoia and forced patriotism, you will still feel the need to condemn that regime as a state of constant fear and horror.
The unintentional by-product comes through the awareness of recent changes in our own country (speaking as an American). We hand over our personal freedoms in exchange for our activities being monitored and our phones wiretapped at government discretion, and just as the Stasi viewed those who expose their brethren's activities to the secret police as "good citizens" who "love their country", we have dubbed ours a "Patriot" Act. To think that we used to call those who championed the fight for freedom and basic human rights as "patriots", and now the term has been mangled to apply to those kowtow to government wishes to take freedoms and human rights away. As The Lives of Others shows so clearly, servitude to authority and love of country are not always the same thing.
©2007 Vince Leo