Lives of Others, The: Superb Political Thriller

At once a compelling political thriller and a human melodrama, The Lives of Others begins in East Berlin in 1984, five years before Glasnost and the fall of the Berlin Wall and then ends in 1991, in what is now the reunited Germany.

At the heart of this fascinating morality tale is the gradual disillusionment of Captain Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Muhe, best known for his roles in Michael Hanekes “Funny Games” and as Dr. Mengele in Costa-Gavras “Amen”), a skilled officer who works for the Stasi, East Germanys all-powerful secret police. Wiesler’s mission is to spy on one couple, a celebrated writer and his actress companion, Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) and Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck).

Five years before its downfall, the East-German government (known as the GDR, German Democratic Republic) asserts its authority with a ruthless system of control and surveillance via the Stasi, a vast network of informers that at one time numbered 200,000 out of a population of 17 million. Its task was clear and simple: To know everything about the lives of others.

Committed Stasi officer and expert interrogator Wiesler is given the job of collecting evidence against famous playwright Dreyman. The job begins after Lieutenant Colonel Anton Grubitz (Ulrich Tukur), a former classmate of Wiesler’s, who now heads the Culture Department at the State Security, invites Wiesler to accompany him to the premiere of Dreyman’s new play, which is also attended by Minister Bruno Hempf (Thomas Thieme).

Minister Hempf tells Grubitz that he has doubts about the playwright’s loyalty to the SED, the ruling Socialist Unity Party, implying that he would approve of a full-scale surveillance operation. Eager to boost his own political future, Grubitz entrusts the monitoring (“Operative Procedure”) to Wiesler, who promises to oversee the case personally. Wiesler also holds that Dreyman cannot possibly be as loyal to the Party as it’s been assumed. However, Hempfs distrust of Dreyman is not politically motivated. Hempf cannot take his eyes off the attractive actress Christa-Maria, Dreymans live-in companion.

An atmosphere of fear and paranoia prevails throughout the pictureand for good reason. While Dreyman is away from their home, his apartment is systematically bugged. A woman neighbor who notices the operation is forced to keep silent by a personal threat to her daughter’s education. Wiesler sets up his surveillance headquarters in the attic of Dreyman’s apartment building, thus beginning a thorough, calculated observation of the lives of the playwright and his girlfriend. At first Weislers observations show that, unlike most of his artistic peers, Dreyman does not display any disdain for the GDR.

Gradually, the situation has strong impact on the couple. Dreymans position slowly begins to change, when he discovers that Christa-Maria has been pressured into a sexual relationship with Minister Hempf.

When Dreyman’s close friend, theater director Albert Jerska (Volkmar Kleinert) is driven to suicide after seven years of unofficial blacklisting by the government, he can no longer remain silent about the GDR. Determined to alert the outside world about the life conditions under the GDR, he plots the placement of an article in the famous West German publication “Der Spiegel,” exposing the GDRs policy of covering up the high suicide rates under the regime. It appears that Wiesler, who has been monitoring all of Dreymans activities, finally has the proof he needs to destroy his subject.

In the early phases of the surveillance, Wiesler’s face remains expressionless; he’s like a robot doing a job. However, gradually, his faade and persona, juts like those of Dreyman, show signs of tension and erosion. While observing the day-to-day life of Dreyman and Christa-Maria, he begins to be emotionally drawn into their world, which puts his own position as an impartial “objective” agent of the GDR into question.

It’s a classic case of what sociologists call “anomie, ” a situation of loneliness and self-estrangement. Wiesler’s immersion in the lives of others, in issues of love, literature and freethinking, makes him acutely aware of the shortfalls of his own existence. Hence, with no love in his life, he resorts to brief encounters with a prostitute for whom he is just one out of many customers.

Unlike most American movies, “Lives of Others” shows how politics can invadeand potentially destroyevery aspect of a citizen’s life: work, creativity, leisure, intimacy, and even sex. Navigating smoothly between the personal and political arenas, the movie shows how destructively the two domains were intermingled for millions of inocent people during those years.

When the anti-GDR article is published, the regime is embarrassed and Grubitz is ordered to discover the identity of the articles author. Dreyman is one of the prime suspects, but Grubitz cannot believe that Wiesler would have failed to discover the plot.

Menawhile, Hempfs discovery of Christa-Marias drug addiction (which she also keeps as a secret from her lover) forces her to expose Dreyman as the author of the Der Spiegel article, but a search of Dreymans apartment doesn’t yield any incriminating evidence.

Convinced that Weisler knows more than he is revealing, Grubitz summons him to interrogate Christa-Maria to find out the one item linking Dreyman to the Der Spiegel article: the typewriter on which it was written. Wiesler, who has known all along about the source of the article and purposely failed to disclose the information to his superiors, must now decide where his allegiances lie.

Indeed, the film’s last, most powerful and touching reel dissects the issues of trust, loyalty, and betrayal by examining the shifting allegiances of the members of the central triangle. Take Wiesler, for example: If he does not extract the information from Christa-Maria, his career as an elite Stasi officer will undoubtedly be over; if he succeeds, Dreymans fate will be sealed.

Most of the movie is set in the mid-1980s, but then the story jumps forward to 1989 and the Fall of the Wall, a dramatic event that Wiesler hears about on the radio, while doing another, more demeaning position at the post office.

The epilogue is set two years following the fall of the Berlin Wall, in 1991, finding Dreyman in a state of rude awakening. He runs into ex-minister Hempf during a performance of his new play, with a new actress playing what would have been Christa-Maria’s role. In a shocking moment of recognition, he learns that he had been the subject of a Stasi surveillance. Rushing back home, he exposes the cables and microphones secretly installed years earlier behind the wallpaper in his apartment. (This scene recalls in its chilly horror a similar one in Coppola’s “The Conversation,” when Gene Hackman realizes he’s been victim of his expert technology).

In the end, still in a state of disbelief, Dreyman sets out to research and discovers the different reality of his past, which has a profound impact on his life, with startling surprises and shocking revelations.

If I have dwelled on the details of narrative, it’s due to the fact that “Lives of Others” is richly plotted, unfolding as a dramatic political thriller with twists and turns in the characters’ tangled web of relationships.

Considering that the film is a feature debut, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck does a smooth, commendable job that easily overcomes the problems of intercuttingwe see every event and interaction from two perspectives, that of the participants themselves and also of their observer. It would trivialize the movie to say that von Donnersmarck humanizes the officers of Stasi, but it’s fair to suggest that, at the very least, the saga illuminates the fine line between oppressors and victims and the heavy price all citizens and their government pay by living in a perpetual state of fear.

Oscar Alert

“The Lives of Others” is Germany’s official submission for this year’s Foreign-Language Film Oscar. The movie has just won the Best Picture and other awards from the European Film Academy (EFA).

While watching this mesmerizing “period piece,” we inevitably think of the culture of fear that prevails in our own country, reflecting the ideological climate of post 9/11. I do hope the movie gets positive response from critics and audiences, when Sony Classics releases it theatrically.