The Lives of Others
by Scott Holleran
Writer and director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s haunting The Lives of Others (in German with English subtitles) is an extraordinarily powerful drama that repudiates altruism, the idea that one must live for the sake of others, as a moral code.
Henckel von Donnersmarck, recreating communist East Germany on the eve of its collapse, uses a tense political thriller as his framework. Exhaustively authentic, with fine strokes of symbolism, The Lives of Others depicts East Berlin in the year 1984, when the Berlin Wall, separating East from West, is still standing. Everyone behind it is enslaved.
The picture opens in a prison, a proper metaphor for the Soviet-controlled country, which tortured its citizens with a secret police known as the Stasi. Every citizen feared the agents of East Germany’s Stasi. The Lives of Others centers upon one of them.
He is Wiesler, a bald, frigid precisionist, expertly played by Ulrich Muhe (an actor who in real life was placed under Stasi surveillance). Meticulous Wiesler is a deliberate instructor; he teaches students how to squash the innocent. The Lives of Others proceeds from there, swiftly moving along and rewarding the mind that grasps what totalitarianism means in theory and in practice; how it envelops a nation in fear—how it elevates the mediocre—how it destroys that which is good.
Wiesler is a weasel, spying on others, reducing them to terrified, quivering flesh. He lives, to the degree possible, for the sake of others—exactly as Communism demands—toiling for the collective and threatening any individual that crosses his path with a heel-clicking command to wither or be struck down.
But he is soon assigned to a case that could change him forever by a former classmate (Ulrich Tukur). Wiesler attends the premiere of a play by suspected freethinker Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch)—he dismisses the handsome writer as “arrogant”—and he is ordered to monitor the Party-favored playwright.
In a few minutes, accentuated by Gabriel Yared’s score, the writer’s home is swept by Stasi stormtroopers planting bugs everywhere. It provides entre to the artist’s life under Communism. Dreyman’s days are filled with fellow creators—indomitable Hauser (Hans-Uwe Bauer) and Dreyman’s weary, blacklisted mentor (Volkmar Kleinert)—and the affections of his lover, an acclaimed actress, Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck).
It is the irresistable Christa, who moves with grace, with whom the low-ranking Wiesler falls in love at first sight. She is scrubbing the floor in a scene on stage, a dutiful worker in a proletarian play, but she sparks when she delivers a line about being crushed by the wheels of injustice. In that moment, something stirs within this ordinary little man—this cog in those wheels—who exists to serve the state. It gradually rises for the rest of the movie.
By the time it comes to a boil, the characters, including a portly minister (Thomas Thieme) who embodies the socialist mentality, are embroiled in an unforgettable tragedy—it had to be, given its subject—about what happens to the human spirit when it is shackled and chained.
Wiesler strains to hear the couple’s gay party music, thoughtful readings and sounds of people who are free on the inside, though they are forced to live as slaves. He cradles himself dreaming of Christa, he touches her bed longing for a life of his own, and the scene in which he first encounters her is an agonizing collision of longing, kindness, and admiration.
Wiesler starts to see that vicariously living for others, required by Communism’s altruistic morality, is poison to the soul. He begins to aid the resistance and act on his newfound values. The nervous climax, fueled by a gripping plot to publish a work of defiance, is better than any action thriller on the market.
But unlike the Holocaust tragic comedy, Life is Beautiful, the Hitler-as-a-slice-of-life Downfall, the morally repugnant Munich or any other variety of movies that trivialize evil, this story calculates a logical culmination of life under dictatorship. It is thoroughly, totally consuming.
Go ahead and connect the philosophical clues. The wrenching, violent conclusion is still moving beyond words. This is a credit to Henckel von Donnersmarck and his taut script, excellent cast and historical timing, a selective detail which allows for the brilliantly integrated finale, which presents the opposite of living for others, neatly tucked into the picture’s last three words.
What begins in prison and ends in a bookstore—where man is free to think, choose and profit—is a bittersweet tribute to that which cannot be fully controlled or killed: man’s ego. There is no equivocation of evil inThe Lives of Others; there are only men and women whose lives are moved by ideas in a revolving intellectual mystery, powered by an unconquerable love for life.
For many reasons, The Lives of Others is one of the year’s top DVDs. It is foremost the format’s premiere of a singularly powerful motion picture and repeat viewings enhance one’s experience of this uniquely, quietly fascinating portrayal of men and women crushed by—and painstakingly extricated from—totalitarianism. It is at once deeply disturbing and bittersweet and its emotional arc moves like an electric current toward an unforgettable transformation.
The disc’s four features are excellent. Seven deleted scenes are superfluous to the movie, yet they remain interesting, particularly with commentary by director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. An interview with the director is illuminating, as he discusses—fluently in English—analog versus digital filmmaking, the power of music and his philosophy of art, which he describes as evoking feelings over expressing principles, causing one to wonder whether he realizes he accomplishes both.
Making of The Lives of Others, 19 minutes presented in German, includes subtitled interviews with cast members Sebastian Koch, Martina Gedeck and the late Ulrich Muhe. This is also informative, revealing that the depiction of the East German state is accurate: the movie’s letter-opening steam machine was operated by the Communist regime—they opened 600 letters per hour—and today’s apologists for China, Cuba and Iran ought to listen to the numerous voices of those who actually lived under totalitarianism.
Their voices, and the pain in Ulrich Muhe’s brown eyes, are impossible to ignore, and Henckel von Donnersmarck identifies each victim in his audio commentary for The Lives of Others. Commentary tracks are often a chore and this one contains the usual list of thank-you notes, but it is instructive. He discloses that, following the movie’s release, Muhe was hated by many Germans for speaking out against East Germany’s evil. He explains that the Communists routinely used prostitutes to blackmail Western businessmen, filming the encounters and cataloging the movies, which Henckel von Donnersmarck says he has seen. It is also true that, as in the film, the government registered every typewriter in the country and the picture’s assertions about suicide are valid.
Henckel von Donnersmarck outrageously compares the picture’s worst Communists to Wall Street businessmen, a glaring and unfortunate error on his part. But he takes pride in his movie’s condemnation of tyranny. Pointing out that it’s his voice announcing the fall of the Soviet-built Berlin Wall, he says: “that’s me—overjoyed at the fall of the dictatorship.”
He speaks of capturing the shame and despair that a totalitarian dictatorship brings with it and his intent to dramatize that “maybe being honest and heroic is not a sacrifice.” The first-time director’s thoughts on making movies are equally absorbing—he questions the validity of the term “director’s cut,” takes artistic autonomy, not compromise, as the given, and cites Arthur Hiller’s Love Story as an influence for its blocking and holding on a shot. He is as precise as his character Wiesler, timing the tempo of Wiesler’s and Dreyman’s typewriting; every detail must be perfect.
And it is—not merely in how The Lives of Others, rejected by most studios as “too intellectual,” lands a surreptitiously delivered gut-punch about a Western nation where only ten percent of the people seek their legally accessible Communist files because they still do not want to know—right up to the last frame in which a barely traceable smile brings a man to life for the very first time.
This review was originally posted on Box Office Mojo in 2007