Eavesdropping on ‘The Lives of Others’

Oscar-Winning German Film Unveils the East

With Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others), 33 year old Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck begins a new chapter in film history, with awards to back it up. Amongst all the other prestigious awards that have recently been showered on this film, including four at the Bavarian Film Awards and seven at the German Film Awards, he has just added an Oscar for Best Foreign Film.

Clearly, Das Leben strikes a chord. Set in East Germany in 1984, this is a time still within living memory for many Germans. And the wounds are still raw, stirring a growing debate about the country’s communist past. The film suggests that Germans are now ready to take a harder look at this era, and with dramatically less affection than has been shown in films such as the gentle comedy Goodbye, Lenin. The style, tone and substance of Das Leben thus marks a revisionist departure from what has been dubbed as ‘Ostalgie’ or ‘Ostalgia’ – that is a fond remembrance of the good old/bad old days of the East, with the suggestion that the communist state has been misunderstood.

In Das Leben der Anderen, to the contrary, the only misunderstanding would be to think the bad old days were anything other than bad.

In an unmistakable reference to the Orwellian dystopian vision of the future, Das Leben is set in 1984. This was a time when the Stasi, a terrifying secret police, made it their business to use an extensive network of spies and surveillance to find out every thing about their own citizens. By the mid 1980s the Stasi employed more than 90,000 personnel and in addition over a 150,000 others unofficially, called upon to serve the security of the state.

The most prominent figure in Das Leben is Captain Gert Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe) a domestic surveillance and interrogation expert. Wiesler is a cold-eyed soulless official, a man who wouldn’t hesitate to wire-tap his own mother to defend the system. He is a humourless automaton, his clothes dull, severe, plain and grey, a portrait of lifelessness.

Donnersmarck sets up the characterization through careful well observed nuances and contrasts. Lt. Col. Anton Grubitz (Ulrich Tukur) is very much a political animal and an unsophisticated ‘schmoozer’. Minister Bruno Hempf (Thomas Thieme) cuts a repulsive figure, willing to use the system to achieve his own perverse gratification. All three men attend a premiere of a new play by Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch), one of the country’s top playwrights, starring his beautiful mistress and the darling of the East German stage, Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck). After the play, Wiesler is given the go ahead to put this handsome couple under surveillance, with no justification beyond the personal ambitions of these men. Hempf lusts after Christa-Maria and wants to see his rival taken out; Wiesler is so repressed and lonely that he finds the sight of this loving couple abhorrent and Grubitz is only out to further his career. A brief sex scene of Wiesler and a prostitute, interrupted by a fleeting cry for help, tells us all we need to know about his lonely life.

The charismatic characters of Dreyman and Sieland contrast sharply. Dreyman is modest, brilliant and inspiring, living with feeling, passion and concern for others. He is clearly a man of conscience. Sieland is morally less exceptional and finds herself compromised under the regime, torn between her career and her emotions. The lives of Dreyman and Sieland are played out in colour, Wiesler in monochrome.

Donnersmarck weaves the lives of these three characters into an intricate web. In the secret attic, the ascetic and dispassionate Wiesler listens in to every detail of  Dreyman and Sieland’s daily lives and ever so slowly, finds himself sympathising with them.

A turning point is when Dreyman learns of the suicide of a friend, a blacklisted director. Dreyman plays the piano, while the power and emotion of the music seeps through the ceiling and the headphones into Wiesler’s conscience. Wiesler begins to feel disgust at his work and finds himself increasingly unwilling to betray his subject’s private moments to his superiors.

The simplicity and subtlety of the film are refreshing, crediting us with our own intelligence. Unlike many political thrillers, the tension in Das Leben is from violence that is always there, embodied in an omnipresent state that systemised the destruction of people’s lives, setting neighbour against neighbour. It’s remarkably powerful, it’s hold enduring. Like the music from Dreyman’s piano, Das Leben, awakens our senses and our humanity.

Das Leben der Anderen
(The Lives of Others) 2006
Directed by
Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck

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