At a time when some civil libertarians are expressing concern that Americans’ privacy rights have been eroded by the expansion of government surveillance powers in the wake of 9/11, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s debut film may have special resonance in this country. “The Lives of Others” specifically revolves around the activity of the obsessively intrusive Stasi, the pervasive East German secret police, during the last stage of communist rule before the fall of the Berlin Wall. But its message can be applied more generally to the abuse of power that can easily follow from any government’s ability to investigate its citizen’s lives without just cause, due process and real oversight.
The script, set in 1984, centers on Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Muehe), a Stasi captain devoted to the work of ferreting out people suspected of being dangers to the Honecker regime. An intense, dedicated man with apparently no friends apart from his superior—Lieutenant-Colonel Grubitz (Ulrich Tukur), with whom he studied at the Stasi school—Wiesler is assigned to direct surveillance of internationally renowned playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) and the man’s live-in girlfriend and regular star Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedek). Wiring their apartment, he settles down in the attic to observe their every move—an assignment he relishes, since he can’t believe that Dreyman is as loyal as everyone believes and he’s fascinated by the brilliant but troubled actress.
But the case gradually transforms Wiesler. Doubts emerge when he realizes that the investigation of Dreyman was initiated not by any real evidence of disloyalty but because a powerful party minister (Thomas Thieme) lusts after Christa-Maria and is using the apparatus of the state to destroy his rival. But it’s his observation of the couple that almost imperceptibly turns him from watching to intervening, and from their enemy to their protector—especially when Georg is led to take a dangerous stand after a dissident friend’s suicide. The twists that follow from that point are engrossing, showing the effect of the abuse of state power but also taking us into post-reunification history with a denouement that’s deeply satisfying as a grim triumph over the oppression of the past.
The dramatic arc of “The Lives of Others” isn’t exactly new—indeed, it’s decidedly reminiscent of “Fahrenheit 451,” though without the futuristic elements. (It shares not only that story’s depiction of the defection of a “company man,” but a fascination with the power of words; and Von Donnersmarck’s cool style has much in common with Truffaut’s 1966 adaptation of it.) And its portrait of “the good German,” as it were, resembles similar tales set during the Nazi era.
But while one can point to such antecedents, this film carries special power by reason of its contemporary relevance—the German people, after all, are still trying to cope with the problems that followed from reunification, and to determine how to overcome the legacy of the decades during which people were encouraged to inform on one another through a policy of reconciliation. But it works not merely because of its themes, but because it’s so expertly crafted. The direction throughout is amazingly assured, and from the technical perspective the picture is as smooth a piece of machinery as a BMW.
And the acting is superb. Gedeck is affecting, but though top-billed she’s actually secondary to Koch, a Jeroen Krabbe lookalike who captures Dreyman’s transition to dissidence very skillfully. But it’s Muehe who really carries the film. He perfectly embodies Wiesler’s cold, distant, almost robotic persona; a shot of him about an hour in, staring straight into the audience with piercing eyes, conveys with exquisite simplicity the feeling of being an object of the Stasi’s attention. But he manages to make the man’s transition affecting, too. Also worthy of mention are Tukur’s department head, who can turn from bonhomie to cruelty on a dime, and Thieme’s portrait of an official utterly corrupted by a brutal system.
The irony of “The Lives of Others,” of course, is that despite the title it’s about us all; it works as a dramatically compelling indictment of a particularly odious regime, but also as a commentary on the corruption of power in the broadest sense. In the final analysis, however, it’s optimistic that even in the worst of circumstances, humanity can still triumph.