The Lives of Others

The Lives of Others: Almost Complete Control

Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s first film, The Lives of Others is part paradox, part prophecy. It’s a stellar achievement in archival storytelling and historic perspective.

The Lives of Others
Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
Buena Vista International
23 March 2006

The power of paranoia is amazing. Fear of the unknown remains the greatest psychological stricture since, without knowledge of what to be wary of, courage can find no real frame of reference. Naturally, such vague dread is the perfect mechanism for total control. Apply enough pressure, and threaten the ethereal element of existence and you can keep dissent down to a bare minimum – if it exists at all. This was the way most supposedly sovereign satellites of the USSR did business. While the amazing might of Russian forces could be called up at any moment, a far more sly and sinister form of tyranny was being used. What these oppressive nations learned was that, when faced with losing their lot in a very limited social setting, or snitching on their friends, families, and coworkers, a human being became a rather easy and readily available nut to crack.

In its drive for power and control, the regime of East Germany — known ironically as the German Democratic Republic, or GDR — commanded its secret police, the infamous Stasi, to spy on suspected “subversives”. Not only were the outright criminals (the revolutionaries, the troublemakers, the opponents of Communism) targeted, but artists and other “free thinkers” found themselves guests of the government, given over to ritualized interrogation and procedurally prescribed brainwashing.

Before the eventual reunification of East and West in 1990, it is reported that almost 90,000 men and women were involved in official surveillance, with another 175,000 acting as informants. That’s nearly 1.8 million people in a country with a population of over 17 million. Astonishingly, one in 10 was actively working for the deceitful doctrine keeping them enslaved. Many around the world were unaware of this concept until the Berlin Wall finally fell. Since then, it’s become the basis for investigative reports, tell-all tomes, and the brilliant German film The Lives of Others.

In this fictional version of events, we meet Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler (a remarkable Ulrich Mühe). After a day instructing new recruits on Stasi interview techniques, our lead is invited to the theater by his superior, Oberstleutnant Anton Grubitz. There, they see a play by the writer — and latest government target — Georg Dreyman. There is nothing wrong with the pro-worker production, but Head Minister Bruno Hempf is infatuated with leading actress Christa-Maria Sieland and wants her lover (Dreyman) out of the way. He puts Wiesler on the case, calling for full 24-hour, around-the-clock scrutiny.

At first, there is nothing unusual to report. The writer follows all the party rules, even reluctantly abandoning a blacklisted colleague, depressed director Albert Jerska. Wiesler writes his boring reports and continues his sullen, straight-laced life. But two things suddenly begin to change his perspective. First, he is disgusted by Hempf’s sleazy, sexually driven motives. The secret policeman would rather be undermining real sedition than playing pimp. Secondly, tragedy strikes close to home for Dreyman, and with it comes a renewed interest in rebellion. Unfortunately for Wiesler, the art produced by this couple has struck a nerve and rendered something inside dangerously alive. One need only understand the reverence that Germans hold for high Art to understand what has happened to Wiesler. And now he faces a dilemma. Will he report on the pair, or is he sick of simply living this beauty vicariously, through the lives of others?

A stunning artistic achievement made even more amazing by the fact that this is writer/director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s very first film, The Lives of Others is part paradox, part prophecy. It stands as a stellar achievement in archival storytelling and historic perspective. For many, the 2006 Oscar winner for Best Foreign Film (newly released on DVD complete with compelling contextual bonus material), will be a solid cinematic revelation. Movies about oppressive regimes are usually overrun with politics and personal grandstanding. They’re so busy making a point that they forget to make us care. But in his insightful audio commentary, von Donnersmarck makes it clear that this film was about people first, principle second. After all, it was the individuals in his story that act as a catalyst for all the challenges and change. The Communist Party’s involvement merely provided the mechanics of the era.

The first thing that strikes you about this film is how alien mid-’80s East Germany looks and feels. It’s a country filled with almost 17 million people, and yet the streets are practically deserted, the sight of a single car far feels more sinister than the chaos of a metropolis teeming with traffic. When we do see a citizen, walking toward their home or visiting a local memorial park, the awareness of their presence outdoors is tensile and acute. Many know they are being followed, joking about “the ghost” shadowing their every move, but there’s an underlying horror about such a circumstance that remains unspoken, lest the Stasi consider such recognition an act of subversion.

When most people think about oppressive societies, they view freedom as a volatile, restricted thing, kept in check by clear rules and strident limitations. But in The Lives of Others, we learn what a real lack of liberty truly is… and it’s staggering. Imagine being unable — either physically… or psychologically — to leave your home, the fear of consequences so overwhelming it renders you inert. That’s the state of the GDR when we first see it.

It’s no surprise, then, to see such emotional ennui translating directly into our main characters. It may seem like a slap-in-the-face stereotype to paint the German people as cold and unfeeling, but this is definitely the initial portrait we get in this film. Our strict Stasi agent Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler is so by-the-book that he appears equally bound and jacketed, and painfully lonely. Walking around in a drab gray jacket (seemingly too thin for the cold) zipped right up to the neck, becomes a mass of contradictions and complexes stored inside cheap Soviet-style clothing. The performance here by the late, great Ulrich Mühe is mesmerizing. It makes all the archetypal elements seem that much more compelling and complex.

The slightly more gregarious supervisor, Oberstleutnant Anton Grubitz, is no more open. For him, life has been reduced to a series of opportunities for promotion, and he will literally do anything within the government’s ill-defined procedures to gain said advantages. When he laughs, there’s tentativeness in his chuckle. When he speaks, there’s a laser-like sense of duty.

Granted, the man behind this entire uneasy investigation, Minister Bruno Hempf, is a bully driven by his sexual desires. He wants this writer watched for reasons that revolve around the scribe’s gorgeous lover, Christa-Maria, and the aging bureaucrat’s libido. But the poisoning effects of power are never too far away. It’s a brilliant rebuff that director von Donnersmarck is offering, saying in essence that not all state-sponsored scrutiny comes at the behest of officials worried about terrorism or treason. Instead, we see powerful old man lusting after a younger woman. With no attributes to woo her, he must rely on the inherent coercion that comes from his position to try to win her favors (throughout, her revulsion is barely contained, and her inability to contain it will lead to her demise).

For those who wish to walk into this movie cold, this is a spoiler warning. At a crucial moment in the story, Wiesler decides to ignore an obvious act of sedition. Something about the situation between Christa-Maria and Georg has touched him deeply. It’s had an unexpected impact that this lifelong conformist is beginning to understand. Initially, he decides to let the writing of an article for a West German magazine (smuggled out with considerable difficulty), on the taboo subject of high suicide rates in East Germany, go unreported. Is his lack of action is actually some backward plan to step in at last minute, and play the hero? We gain such an inference from the careful monitoring he continues to employ. But when he has a chance to tell Grubitz about the plot, he balks. Of course, we see an underlying rationale for withholding the truth — Minister Hempf is becoming belligerent in his desire for Christa-Maria and it sickens Wiesler. But he also recognizes the price he will pay if his lack of action is ever discovered, yet he decides to go even further and risks himself.

It’s at this point where The Lives of Others exposes its other significant theme: the fragility of humans. The Soviet system, frequently referenced throughout the course of the film, is ballyhooed as a model of efficiency and equality. Of course, the viewers know that’s blatantly untrue, but the Stasi characters still consider it a communal caveat, and that’s all that matters. But the intrinsic flaw in such an illogical ideal is the lack of interpersonal perspective.

If mindless robots could be employed to do the jobs required of these overworked officers, there would, eventually, never be a need for their services. But since actual flesh and blood humans do the job, there is always the hint of happenstance, the possibility that a bribe or a bargain could subvert the process. Though he starts out spouting the direct dogma of his educational training, Wiesler soon discovers that he, too, is like every other Stasi in the country — a little too easily led by his allegiance to self over a pledge to the Party.

There’s even a parallel (albeit a delicate and ultimately destructive one) to Georg and Christa-Maria. For years, the GDR has been very good to the playwright, producing his propaganda-like litanies, as long as he plays by the rules. And he’s been happy to accommodate since the situation has done little to alter his creativity. But when his friend and mentor Albert Jerska, a director blacklisted because of an artists’ pledge he signed a decade before, kills himself, Georg implodes. He wants back at the system that would stifle his associates’ need to create, and with little care for his own cause, begins the process of his own downfall.

Similarly, acting is all that Christa-Maria knows. She has no other skill, and absolutely no other options in a society that carefully controls all careers. If she doesn’t do as Hempf wants, the stage will be shut off to her forever. If she does, she betrays Georg, herself, and everything their love stands for. Naturally, selfishness overrides selflessness, and when pressed, our helpless heroine turns informant. It’s not that she wants to, or that she has that much to say. It’s just that, in a place where choices are non-existent, she needs to maintain her own situational status quo… at any cost.

It’s such a disturbing dichotomy that makes The Lives of Others such a cautionary tale. The analogies to America under a chaotic conservative clampdown fueled by post-9/11 fears and an unwinnable war abroad are disquieting. The mind boggles at the notion of constant federal surveillance… until the arguments for and against the Patriot Act are exposed. The purposeful destruction of a citizen’s life or livelihood for the sake of an unsure political gain seems surreal…until one is reminded of the entire Valerie Plame/Scooter Libby ordeal (recall the former top aide to Vice President Dick Cheney, Scooter Libby, was prosecuted for leaking information from a classified intelligence report about Valerie Plame, an undercover CIA agent, to a New York Times reporter.)

Controlling information is crucial in any battle embroiled country. But when the enemy both on the field and at home is ill-defined and the acts of subversion ambiguous, the tactic to trounce dissent seems silly… until you turn on the evening news and see the US President propose that “you’re either with us or against us”… and he means everyone including the individuals he’s forgotten he works for. Control is the unflappable foundation of any totalitarian regime. It’s a subject soaked into every frame of this movie masterwork.

The new DVD delivers even more startling revelations. For anyone who thinks von Donnersmarck exaggerated the ‘facts’ he presents, the interviews with his cast and crew argue otherwise. Most of them lived in the East, and their reflections are fascinating. In many cases, they paint a far bleaker and direr situation. Additionally, our filmmaker takes great pains in explaining his research process. He conducted hundreds of interviews, visited the museum where Stasi records are now available for viewing, and combed archives for most of the material used for background radio and TV broadcasts.

There are also a smattering of deleted scenes that emphasize the importance of editing and narrative construction. Our director recognizes that, in some cases, The Lives of Others reached beyond its borders. It was trying to be too preachy when all it really needed was the personal story to make its many points. Besides, the film resonates so fully with strong philosophical elements that the message would never be missed.

Indeed, all the clichés apply here: absolute power corrupts absolutely; those holding forth over others will do any and everything to maintain such a stance; systems set up to fetter out corruption will be guilty of greater crimes than anything they uncover. At first, this would suggest that The Lives of Others has nothing new to tell us. But for those of us who’ve lived in the West and know little or nothing about life behind the Berlin Wall, what we end up with here is something akin to social science fiction.

The main element of any work of speculation is the presentation of a world completely unrecognizable to our own, and that’s most certainly the GDR. Government television broadcasts resemble transmissions sent directly out of George Orwell’s nightmares, a casual lunch in the Stasi cafeteria where anti-Party humor is jokingly shared — and suddenly the joke teller is sentenced to work in a basement, steaming open envelopes for the rest of his career. If there is one tiny flaw in von Donnersmarck’s designs, it’s that we actually want more of this material. While the personal story drives the film, this ancillary material is an amazing movie unto itself.

Lastly, there is something missing from most sequences, a presence most people assume coincides with any authoritarian regime. Viewed only causally, guarding Stasi headquarters or patrolling alongside the police, there is a real lack of military might in The Lives of Others. With a large population to oppress, one would assume that the Army’s main job would be the maintenance of order. They’d be everywhere: on street corners, in local shops, around the edges of parks, even in the lobbies of residential apartment buildings. But aside from a sporadic fleeting glimpse, they are nowhere to be found. We realize, in the end, that when neighbors are turned into informants, the military presence isn’t needed: that’s the ultimate power of paranoia.

When fear has gripped a nation so deeply, when you’ve successfully tied everyday existence to a strident need for conformity, when you get notoriously idealistic individuals like artists to crack under the pressure and perform exactly how you want them to, there’s apparently no need for jackbooted thugs. All you need are a bunch of gray-suited civil servants to invite themselves into your lives. They’ll easily acquiesce to this role; that is until they start thinking for themselves. Then all really is lost.

RATING 9 / 10
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