by Stacey Osbeck
The Lives of Others (2006) opens with two interesting lessons: how to spot a liar, and how to willfully break a man. Captain Gerd Wiesler (played by Ulrich Mϋhe) is the best at both.
East Germany, 1984, the Berlin Wall is up and all aspects of life are monitored and controlled by the German Democratic Republic’s (GDR) secret police, the Stasi.
A joke at the Party’s expense yields firm retribution. A mere suggestion of unfairness can warrant imprisonment. Helplessness and hopelessness keep the general population in line. Spies can’t be everywhere, so to fill the gaps, the Stasi blackmail common people into becoming informants, reporting on their neighbors, spouses, friends. Writer-Director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck left nothing to coincidence in setting his thriller in 1984, a year synonymous with a controlling dystopian society.
The Head of the Culture Department invites Captain Wiesler to the theater to enjoy a new play by Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch). The handsome playwright is a GDR Party darling and the only non-subversive writer also read in the West. He’s completely clean. Wiesler will begin monitoring him immediately.
Dreyman lives with his girlfriend and lead actress, the sensuous Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck). Microphones must be planted throughout their apartment before a planned birthday party in hopes of not only entrapping Dreyman, but also rounding up some of his rogue artsy friends.
A bugging team is sent in (in awesome 80s German windbreakers). Wiesler sets up a base camp in the unfinished rough wood attic of Dreyman’s building. Over time he eavesdrops and types meticulous notes. Listening to the playwright in unguarded moments, in private spaces, 24/7 would have to produce some morsel of information to justify an arrest. And so it seems as simple as that, a waiting game. But here’s where things take an unexpected turn.
Wiesler has mastered the art of interrogation, observation, rooting out enemies of the state. He’s well respected, holds the position of Captain and out of all the cool 80s German jackets, his is the coolest. However, that’s at work.
He comes home to a large lonesome apartment. A great space for a gathering of friends if he had any. Wiesler cooks pasta and squeezes tomato paste from a toothpaste looking tube directly onto his spaghetti. That beige empty living space and tasteless dinner sum up his entire personal life.
In contrast, at Dreyman’s birthday party Wiesler listens in on writers, artists, passionate people. He hears hopes, strong convictions, affections. Wiesler is privy to and struck by the fullness of life.
Through a mixture of hard work, talent and luck Dreyman leads a good life which has shielded him from many realities. He sees the frustration and sadness among his friends, but doesn’t grasp the full depths of their suffering: His journalist friend, under surveillance, can’t obtain a travel permit. A blacklisted director hasn’t worked in close to a decade, eating away at his sense of self. Even his girlfriend, Christa-Maria, secretly takes anxiety pills to numb the emotional distress of her circumstances.
Pre-Weinstein era there were miseries some actresses silently endured if they wanted to continue having careers. High ranking Minister Hempf (Thomas Thieme) sets his sights on Christa-Maria and won’t take no for an answer. In one scene in the back of his car, we watch her pull away and come up with excuse after excuse on why she has to go. In the end, what can she do, go to the police? He runs the police, and so she submits to his groping. Her body stiff, her arms at her side in quiet repulsion.
It’s worth mentioning that the filmmaker highlighted this detail. That under a broad blanket of injustice, women are still targeted and more vulnerable to particular abuses of power.
Living vicariously through his headphones, Wiesler develops a growing fascination in the playwright. At the same time, his faith in the Party begins to erode out from under him, leaving him wondering where he stands.
A friend’s suicide jolts Dreyman out of his idealism, seeing his countrymen’s burdens in stark relief for the first time. Using a pen name, he prepares a nonfiction piece on suicides that occur under the oppression of the GDR. With the aid of others, Dreyman plans to secretly smuggle it to the West for publication.
This is that beautiful dragnet moment that everyone involved in the sting has been waiting for. Except now the Captain feels conflicted. The microphones pick up all conversations, however, they don’t record. He listens, then creates a report with the typewriter. In that small gap, between listening and transcribing, lies choice.
Such a notion goes against every fiber of his being. If found out, it’s not just his career but his very life that will be at stake. And that’s why there’s something so intriguing about a man compelled.
It begins with a small omission, followed by a slight fabrication. Eventually, by the midpoint, the two men’s writing styles reverse. As Dreyman below tries to expose hard facts, Wiesler above has turned his report into a work of fiction.
I had so much fun seeing this in the theater that I went back a few days later to watch it again. That year it beat out Guillermo del Toro’s crowd pleaser Pan’s Labyrinth to win the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.
Henckel von Donnersmarck created a thriller like no other by taking the basic building blocks of the genre and turning them inside out. A traditional thriller has secret forces working against the hero that even the audience doesn’t fully see or understand. Therefore, in any other thriller, Wiesler would be the villain. We would be firmly planted in Dreyman’s point of view, completely ignorant of the dark outer web looking to trap him. But in Lives the audience holds a superior position with the Stasi, clearly seeing the hidden buttresses holding the constructs in place.
In a true thriller, the lead is motivated by self-preservation. Here, a sense of decency drives Wiesler and the feeling that at least one among them should wield their power for good. Another usual genre device throws the hero into a new environment of extreme isolation where they have none of their usual resources to draw on for help. Wiesler earned the right to work autonomously. He leverages isolation to his advantage. Part of the excitement, too, stems from the fact that it’s a foreign film. No Hollywood ending is promised—anything goes.
This film is definitely worth a watch. It uniquely bears witness to the treachery of Cold-War East Germany and shows what can happen when a nation treats its own citizens as ‘other’. And on a brighter note, it exemplifies, as in Wiesler’s observing station, what good can come about when those in power actually listen.