At its height of power in Cold War East Germany, the Stasi (the German Democratic Republic’s Secret Police) had some 100000 employees and 200000 informers whose job it was “to know everything” about the 17 million citizens of the GDR. Captain Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Muhe) is one of the Stasi’s most capable interrogators and surveillance specialists and is assigned to spy upon liberal playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) to see if the author harbors anti-GDR feelings. But, Wiesler’s surveillance will impact him far more than he can know in “The Lives of Others.”
First-time feature film director, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, has hit one out of the park with this enthralling look into a place and time little known to Western audiences. We meet Capt. Wiesler as he interrogates a potential enemy of the state who may be complicit in another GDR citizen’s flight to the west. The interrogation is intercut with Wiesler lecturing students at the Stasi college on how to establish the guilt or innocence of his subjects under questioning. Right off the bat, the tyro helmer establishes Wiesler as a smart, capable and ruthless state functionary who knows how to build a case and break his object of investigation to get to the “truth.”
Wiesler is assigned the investigation of Georg Dreyman, a seemingly loyal East German author whose politically correct plays are a hit among the high-ranking GDR bureaucrats. But, in East Germany, loyalty is not considered a given and Wiesler is ordered to bug Dreyman’s apartment and prove, beyond doubt, that he is a good socialist. Wiesler’s in-depth investigation, which includes Dreyman’s live-in actress girlfriend, Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck), reveals the true nature Dreyman, Sieland and, ultimately, Wiesler himself.
The Lives of Others” is a richly populated, multi-layered character study of its principle players. At the outset, Wiesler is seen as an incorruptible automaton for the state security who will use everything at his disposal to break his surveillance subjects and reveal their true selves. But, as the story unfolds and Wiesler wields his craft, his humane side creeps to the surface as he is altered by the lives, minds and hearts of Georg and Christa-Maria. What started out as just another spying job for Wiesler turns into a soul changing experience as he gets to know these two people and what makes them tick. Wiesler, on the surface, seems blindly loyal to the state but it is soon evident that a wide streak of humanity runs within the man.
Georg Dreyman is less complicated as we see his idealism and naivety as he blithely goes about his anti-GDR subversions – writing an article, to be smuggled to the west, about the alarming rate of suicide (re-termed “self-murder” by the state) in East Germany – thinking that he is immune to police surveillance. But, Dreyman is the catalyst that will affect the changes of heart in Wiesler. Christa-Maria is a more complex enigma than her lover and has a more sordid back story as Wiesler discovers that she is carrying on a clandestine affair with the sleazy Minister of Culture, Bruno Hempf (Thomas Thieme), Wiesler’s highest ranking boss. We don’t know if she is protecting Dreyman or just herself but she garners our sympathy despite her affair with Hempf.
While the principle characters, alone, are worth the price of admission to “The Lives of Others,” great attention is made to populating the supporting personae with three-dimensional people. Wiesler’s immediate superior, Lt. Col. Anton Grubitz (Ulrich Tukur), is an ambitious state functionary who uses his friend and subordinate for his own advancement. Dreyman’s friends, Paul Hauser (Hans-Uwe Bauer) and Albert Jerska (Volkmar Kleinert) are complex individuals that garner your admiration and, in the case of black-listed stage director Jerska, sympathy. Others in the supporting cast all help to give the background characters dimension and meaning.
Techs belie “The Lives of Others” as a debut feature work. Lensing, by Hagen Bogdanski, is expertly and crisply delivered and subtly shows both sides of surveillance – the watcher and the watched. Production design, from the relative opulence of the intelligensia to Wiesler’s electronic observation station and the rest, is first class. The filmmakers also do a fine job showing the outside world in 1984 East Germany and its utilitarianism.
The script, by helmer von Donnersmarck, is a beautifully crafted, thought provoking work that fills every minute of its 2+ hours with its fascinating look into the machinations of the Stasi and the impact its dominance has on the lives of the people of East Germany. This study on totalitarianism breaks new ground with its examination of the lives of its characters under the yoke of “democratic socialism” I give it an A.Laura:
1984, Socialist East Berlin. The Secret Police known as the Stasi comprise 100,000 employees fed by 200,000 informers. One of the very best is Captain Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe, "Funny Games," "Amen"), a teacher and field agent whose entire existence is defined by his job. Wiesler is a leech who preys on "The Lives of Others."
Writer/director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck left film school to make this, his first feature length film, and it is one of the most auspicious film debuts in cinema history. He was given his diploma for making it and if the Academy does the right thing, he should also receive an Oscar ("The Lives of Others" is one of the five nominees for Foreign Language Film). The film is beautifully crafted and brilliantly acted. Above all, von Donnersmarck knows how to weave a complex, gripping and very human tale.
In a pre-credit sequence, Wiesler coldly demonstrates his techniques to a class of young recruits. Video interrogation shows a young man claiming no knowledge of a friend's defection. Wiesler insists he is guilty. A student who questions the inhumanity of sleep deprivation is quietly noted with a black mark. Wiesler tells his students the two reasons he knows the man is guilty then, on tape, pulls out his trump card - the threat of jailing the man's wife and putting his children in state custody. The admission spills forth to applause from his students.
Wiesler is joined by his more expansive friend and recently promoted superior Lieutenant Colonel Grubitz (Ulrich Tukur, "Amen," 2002 "Solaris"), who insists he join him at the theater that night so that he might toady up to Minister Bruno Hempf (Thomas Thieme, "Downfall's" Martin Bormann). The play is by Socialist writer Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch, "Gloomy Sunday," "Amen"), who Grubitz claims is their least subversive author, even liked by Hempf. But upon viewing the play and the man who wrote it, Wiesler deems him worthy of surveillance. Wiesler also is utterly rapt by the lead actress and author's girlfriend, Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck, "The Good Shepherd").
Grubitz makes points with Hempf by parroting Wiesler's suspicions and gets orders to send Wiesler's crew out to bug Dreyman and Sieland's apartment in time for a party they are known to be giving. Soon Wiesler is sharing twelve hour shifts with underling Sgt. Lehmann (Ludwig Blochberger) in a 'listening room' fitted with cameras pointing towards their quarry. Wiesler is surprised to discover that Minister Hempf becomes part of the play, but Grubitz insists on erasing his entries from Wiesler's logs. Like a puppeteer with people on his strings, Wiesler begins to manipulate those he observes, but the lives he monitors changes something deep within him.
Yes, Gerd Wiesler has roots in "The Conversation's" Harry Caul, but whereas Caul was having a crisis of conscious, Wiesler is learning about love. Ulrich Mühe's extraordinary performance lets us into his character slowly, after forcing us to make that initial, snap judgement. Heck, von Donnersmarck even succeeds in shooting the guy, listing off his chair near the end of a shift, to resemble Germany's famous bloodsucker Nosferatu (and, in an odd coincidence, Donnersmarck happens to be 6'9", about the same towering height as that silent film's director F.W. Murnau).
Wiesler is a beautifully written character with a glorious arc, but "The Lives of Others" touches on so much more. Besides its recent political history, a love story and the bravery of those who would risk all in the name of truth, the filmmaker explores what it is to be a good man ('a good man' is the name of the piano piece Dreyman plays when he hears of the suicide of his blacklisted director friend and it is what Christa-Maria calls Wiesler when he presents himself as a fan). The lives of wiretappers and those under surveillance have been the subject of but a mere handful of films and while the genre often reflects paranoia, von Donnersmarck succeeds in hammering home how the right to privacy is integral to our human makeup. The act which brings the film to its tragic climax is, in fact, Dreyman's decision to expose the GDR's appalling suicide rate in an article published for the West's Der Spiegel.
Amidst all the passion, intrigue and heroism, "The Lives of Others" is also often funny. A joke about General Secretary Honecker told by a Stasi recruit is laugh out loud funny and an elevator scene between Wiesler and a naive child is both amusing and revealing.
Koch is perfectly cast as the handsome underground liberal artist. Initially described as arrogant, Koch gives Dreyman a masculine sensitivity, but it is Gedeck who gives the film its tragic heart as the victimized beauty who is forced into a corner.
The film is beautifully shot (cinematography by the sure to be heard more of Hagen Bogdanski), edited (Patricia Rommel, "Nowhere in Africa") and costumed (Christa-Maria's fur hat, Wiesler's track suit). And while the film seems to reach its natural conclusion well before its end, sit back - "The Lives of Others" doesn't make the mistake of ending more than once but instead offers a modern day coda that perfectly closes its circular structure.
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