Listening In (Film Review: “The Lives of Others”)

A timely and tautly wound Cold War drama about the perils of independent thought in East Germany, where privacy is never assumed and no one can be trusted.

SnapShot Plot

The 2006 German film, The Lives of Others should be mandatory viewing for all college-level political science courses, as it so perfectly captures a time and place not so long ago, the fallout of which should serve as a cautionary tale for all.

The masterfully unfolding plot takes place in East Berlin in the mid-80s, shortly before the eve of Glasnost and the fall of the Berlin Wall. A country under Communist control, whose authoritarian policies were brutally enforced by the Ministry for State Security, commonly known as the Stasi secret police. Their tactics were widely known and feared, including wire-tapping, character assassinations, blackmail, imprisonment, and – most insidious of all – the manipulations of friends and neighbors into eavesdroppers and informants. They accomplished these dirty deeds by virtue of a vast web of secret dossiers and bully tactics, unfettered by any check on their almost absolute power.

Into this setting we meet the dedicated and highly regarded Stasi intelligence officer Gerd Wiesler (played by Ulrich Mühe), a man with seemingly no private life, whose face expresses no discernible shadows of anything resembling human emotion. His approach to the job of surveillance and interrogation is joyless and efficient; he assumes everyone’s guilt out of hand and it’s just a matter of time before his subject will crack under the pressure and confess all. His new case is the investigation of a well-regarded playwright, Georg Dreyman (played by Sebastian Koch), whose loyalty to the Party has never been questioned, but to Weisler he seems marginally suspect. The writer’s muse and live-in lover is the actress Christa-Maria Seiland (played by Martina Gedeck), an artist also held in similarly high esteem by the power brass.

Georg and Christa-Maria’s flat is bugged from top to bottom, with a dispassionate Weisler literally roosted in the attic of their apartment building commandeering a 24/7 listening & recording surveillance of their every word and deed. As he becomes increasingly immersed in their relationship as well as their world of fellow artists and free thinkers, Weisler ever so slowly finds himself drawn to them, and perhaps to the dawning possibility that the ethos of the world to which he belongs is one of decrepitude and malice. The moral conundrum for Weisler proves an existential threat, as does his burgeoning moral compass. His loyalty will surely be tested, but even if he survives, will his soul?

Parting Shot

Directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, The Lives of Others won Best Foreign Film at the 2007 Academy Awards, as well as the César Award for Best Film. It swept every major category at the German Film Awards that year, too, and appeared on most major critics’ 10 Best lists. The film, like all works of true art, sneaks up on you quietly until the moment when you realize you’re in the presence of something truly special. Truly, in the literal sense of the word, as the movie goes to some lengths to avoid the look and feel of a big production, highly romanticized Cold War drama. We’ve seen plenty of them. Production Designer Silke Buhr’s sets featuring identical cars, worn looking fashion, and utilitarian & soulless architecture and furnishings give off the unmistakable atmosphere of resignation and hopelessness endemic to that society. The movie also plays like a play, making it easy to see these characters as people but also as symbols of the shifting values and anima of the times in which they were living.

The film also speaks – at its heart – about the cost to a society in which individualism is considered inherently aberrant, and where even the basic facts of its peoples’ lives are doctored to only reflect the good of the whole. There’s a tiny moment early on in Weisler’s surveillance of Dreyman in which a small boy joins him on the elevator and makes mention of the Stasi, indicating that his father told him they were ‘bad men’. Whereas the old Weisler would have eagerly obtained the boy’s father’s name and apartment number, this Weisler. . . hesitates. . . and pivots to another subject. Such a small moment, and one so galvanizing. Not surprisingly, the characters are not played for big, emotional moments. It’s as if the East Germany of their time has taken all the wind out of their sails, and it requires all their strength just to keep up a pretense of party loyalty and subjugation to the greater good. What you do see is a creeping erosion at the center of peoples’ lives, stemming from the nagging question of whether your career success evolved because of your talent or because of your loyalty to the State.

This is a political thriller the likes of which should not be missed.

The Lives of Others is presently streaming on Netflix.

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