Movies That Kick My Ass
No. 17: The Lives of Others
Most people here in the United States who protest that the policies of the political party or parties they oppose are rapidly transforming the country from a constitutional republic to an absolutist dictatorship have never actually lived under an absolutist dictatorship. Americans who were born here and have never lived abroad — like me — have only experienced life in one of the freest and most tolerant societies ever created. We have no concept of what life is like today in North Korea, or China. We cannot even imagine it, since we have no useful frame of reference. Maybe that’s why we bitch about having to wear seatbelts or motorcycle helmets, or not being able to smoke wherever and whenever we feel like it, or having to pay what we think are high taxes. We see these relatively unobtrusive regulations as tyrannical because we have never even remotely felt true tyranny.
One of the reasons why Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s 2006 feature directorial debut The Lives of Others grips so tightly and lingers so long after its final fade-out is that it offers us the faintest taste of what life was like inside an absolutist state, where the outside world was blocked out and those unfortunate to be trapped within the borders were the subject of constant surveillance by a paranoid and, when necessary, brutal government. The state in question is the grotesquely named German Democratic Republic, which most of us simply called East Germany, and I get the feeling that The Lives of Others truly is no more than a taste of life under the GDR; one of the few criticisms I’ve read of the film is that it doesn’t go far enough to detail the horrendous conditions of life in East Germany.
Maybe not. Again, I’m incapable of having an informed opinion on this. But The Lives of Others seems to capture the essence of what life was like behind the Iron Curtain better than any film I’ve ever seen.
Its story involves Gerd Wiesler, a captain in the Stasi (the East German equivalent of the KGB) who is assigned to spy on playwright Georg Dreyman. Described to Wiesler as the only loyal East German writer whose works are appreciated outside the GDR, Dreyman is nonetheless targeted because his actress girlfriend is also the mistress of Minister Hempf, a powerful government official. Colonel Grubitz, Wiesler’s superior, hopes that proving Dreyman disloyal and sending him off to prison will place he and Wiesler into Hempf’s good graces. Wiesler is less enthusiastic at such an opportunistic use of state power, but he goes about his job with a chilling efficiency, breaking into Dreyman’s apartment when no one is home, planting listening devices in every room, and leaving without a trace.
Everything that occurs within Dreyman’s apartment is heard, either by Wiesler himself or by another Stasi agent assigned to assist him, and summarized at the end of the day in a written report. Every conversation, every bowel movement, every act of lovemaking is dutifully typed up and filed away. Despite the constant surveillance, Dreyman appears to be a loyal communist. As he continues to eavesdrop on Dreyman and his girlfriend, Christa-Maria, Wiesler grows more and more disgusted with Christa-Maria’s affair with Minister Hempf. First, he anonymously informs Dreyman of the affair, then he contrives to meet with Christa-Maria in a bar prior to a liaison with Hempf. Passing himself off as a bashful admirer of the beautiful actress, Wiesler convinces Christa-Maria to end the affair and return to Dreyman.
And it’s not the last favor Wiesler does for this writer and this actress. In one of the most truly remarkable feats of acting I have ever seen, Ulrich Mühe (who lived under East German rule and spoke out against communist rule prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall) lets us watch Wiesler change without ever actually witnessing the transformation. In the film’s opening scenes he is teaching a class on interrogation, indoctrinating a new generation of wannabe-Stasi to serve the state. By the end, he has risked his career and his life to protect the people he has been assigned to destroy. There is no moment of truth, nothing so easy as an obvious epiphany. Through the artistry of Mühe and writer/director von Donnersmarck, we watch as Wiesler becomes a better man right in front of us.
Incredibly, though it might be the best film of the century so far, The Lives of Others was only nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, which it won (rather easily, I suspect). It is a better film than The Departed, which won that year’s Best Picture, and Little Miss Sunshine, which, of the five films nominated, should have won. And Mühe as Wiesler is more deserving of accolades than the five men nominated for Best Actor in his place.
But the Oscar is only one of countless awards, and The Lives of Others did eventually win more than a few, mostly in Europe, even in Germany, where it was received reluctantly at first. I think of what it must be like for the citizens of the former East Germany, having to grapple not only with the legacy of Nazism, but also with that of the smothering communist regime that succeeded it. I also think of the pride they can take in having survived to produce great artists like Mühe and von Donnersmarck, and a film as great as this one.
Today is the twentieth anniversary of the opening of the Berlin Wall. It’s a moment we get to witness in the film from the perspective of Gerd Wiesler, who has been demoted and assigned to open letters in some nondescript concrete basement as a result of his actions in the matter of Georg Dreyman. News of the wall’s fall comes over the radio while Wiesler and a few others go about their mundane work. Feeling the hand of the state finally relax from around his throat, Wiesler stands and walks outside without a word, leaving the others to follow him. The Departed may be a great movie, but I doubt it will be studied and celebrated twenty, thirty, fifty years from now. But long after most of its contemporaries have been relegated to dusty collections or occasional cable telecasts, The Lives of Others will stand among the greatest films ever made. It will stand for those who still remember what life was like on the eastern side of that wall, and more importantly, for those of us who can’t.