The Lives of Others

Ulrich Muhe plays Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler.
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By Sara Galer

The Lives of Others is an intriguing glimpse into life behind the Iron Curtain. Set in East Germany in the mid-eighties, it's long before the hope of Glasnost, and people have been living with the Stasi, or secret police, watching over them for 40 years. Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's film is a nearly flawless study of people's inner lives when they know they are being watched, and when a casual remark or joke could result in years of imprisonment.

The film begins with Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Muhe), a Stasi operative with a specialty in surveillance, giving a lecture to some university students about the art of interrogation. This vision of the GDR depicts it as the embodiment of George Orwell's 1984, complete with people being arrested for being thought criminals. The wrong ideas could land you in an interrogation session with Wiesler, who is nothing if not cool. He explains to the students how persistence can yield results, and eventually his exhausted subject gives up the name of a man who helped a neighbor escape to the West.

This is a world where subversive tendencies are detected only by the smallest subtleties, because presumably everyone has grown accustomed to hiding their true ideas. Wiesler is an expert at sniffing them out. During his lecture, when a student asks whether Wiesler's  incessant interrogation is inhumane, he answers the student's question readily enough, but marks an 'X' next to the student's name on his attendance roster - whether to exclude him from a career with the Stasi or to throw him in jail for a spell, the gesture creates a chill - and a studied cynicism - that permeates the entire film.

It's Wiesler's talent for spotting potential 'thought criminals' that serves as the premise for the film. At the premiere of a play by one of the country's top playwrights Georg Dreymann (Sebastian Koch), Wiesler discusses whether Dreymann is 'clean.' His colleague, Grubitz, shrugs off the idea, but Wiesler, ever the observer, suggests there might be something to investigate. When party official Bruno Hempf (Thomas Thieme) takes a liking to the lead actress in the play (and Dreymann's girlfriend), Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck), Grubitz picks Wiesler to head up the surveillance investigation. In no time flat, a group of Stasi bugs every room in Dreymann's apartment, and Wiesler is holed up in his attic, listening to every telephone call and conversation.

This is where things start to get interesting. Wiesler, who has led a life dedicated to the GDR and all its oppressive ideals, has never contemplated any alternative. But one glimpse into the colorful lives of his artistic targets and he is hooked. Dreymann's apartment is filled with books and music as well as female companionship. When we see Wiesler going home to a Soviet-style apartment block, his flat is completely unadorned. There are no pictures of family or friends, no  books; it could be a hotel room. His dinner is likewise as bland; he squirts some tomato paste from a tube onto a bowl of spaghetti, and nothing ever hinted more at a bleak existence. He eats it in front of the television which broadcasts state-run news. Considering how desolate  Wiesler's inner life is, it should not be such a surprise that he immediately becomes smitten - with art, beauty, dangerous decadence and above all, Dreymann and his alluring girlfriend, Christa-Maria.

It is a testimony to the director, Donnersmarck, that The Lives of Others never feels indulgent, even when we might want it to be. He always holds back, much in the same way that his characters must do in order to survive. When an innocent phrase, a shifting of the eyes or a subtle change in expression can give something away - or mean an important shred of communication getting across - Donnersmarck and especially Muhe, who plays Wiesler, are masters. This film is a true thriller that maintains suspense psychologically rather than physically. When the necessary violence comes, it is a shock to the system.

Nearly everything that happens in this film is significant - a piece of sheet music given to Dreymann by a close friend who has been blacklisted turns up later in one of the key themes of redemption. An underling tells a joke about a party leader within earshot of his superiors - the only laugh-out-loud moment in the entire movie - and his fate is not forgotten later on.

In a society where your every move is noted, every word recorded (a statistic at the beginning of the film put the GDR population around 200,000 and the number of Stasi plus informants at around half that, meaning a heck of a lot of spying was going on) everything becomes  significant, and the Stasi knew how to mine each iota of thought or action to build someone's file. Later on, when the wall comes down and Dreymann asks to see the files the Stasi compiled on him, an office staffer wheels over a table stacked with twenty-odd typed portfolios - it's hard to know if you'd be flattered or horrified.

The Lives of Others has a title similar to another work that explores the fabled 'what if' question - Simone de Beauvoir's The Blood of Others. In her 1945 work, de Beauvoir writes about people who use force to resist the Nazis, including going so far as to take lives.  It's easy enough to say what we might do in a similar situation, but many people, when faced with the prospect of a relatively comfortable life, will take pains not to compromise it. In East Germany, sometimes that meant shopping out a neighbor or two to the Stasi. What The Lives of Others does is bring us into this world with its warped values, and makes us fully appreciate what it means to stand up to the system.

The Lives of Others, which won an Academy Award this year for best foreign language film (and rightly so) is playing at Landmark Theatres.