The Lives of Others was the first feature film of Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s career, it was a stunning debut film taking the Best Foreign Picture award home in the 2006 Academy awards (beating Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth) and receiving critical acclaim in the process. Donnersmarck’s follow up was the Hollywood tosh The Tourist, what a waste...
Set in Germany, 1984, The Lives of Others informs the world of the repressive, socialist government of the East German state. East Germany is a place where the media is regulated and negative opinions on the Socialist system are crushed. This is done with the aid of the Stasi (the East German secret police) who are more than willing to employ torture methods such as sleep deprivation and blackmail. The Lives of Others mainly focuses on Stasi agent Captain Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe) who relishes the opportunity to dig up some dirt on a famous writer Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) and his actress wife, Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck), but he soon has a change of heart.
The Lives of Others is a character study of a man who slowly becomes disillusioned with the socialist system he is serving. The film follows Wiesler as he turns from envious resentment to love for the couple. Geog Dreyman has everything Weisler does not have, a beautiful woman, friends and vibrant parties, while Wiesler has to make do with large prostitutes and his empty, dull apartment. Driven on by this jealous rage (and the chance to further his career), he is virtually licking his lips at getting an opportunity to take down Georg Dreyman, whose arrogance frustrates Wiesler. It is because of Wiesler’s bland and contrasting life that he resents both Geog Dreyman and his wife, who seem to have everything he desires, but a change overcomes him as Wiesler proves he is not a bad man as when he truly listens the piece of sheet music, entitled Sonata for a Good Man, a great change overcomes him. Weiser is greatly moved by this as he admires its beauty, and as he becomes accustomed to the writings of Brandt (a writer who admired the socialist system, but saw its flaws), he distances himself away from cold realities of the Socialist system, finally realising that the utopia that his superiors dreamt of were an impossibility.
The Lives of Others is, undoubtedly, a fascinating character study made ever more so fascinating by Ulrich Mühe’s heartfelt performance in the central role. Mühe, who himself was monitored by the Stasi, simply remembered what it was like living in East Germany and that memory was transferred to screen. Mühe’s quiet, understated performance holds real power over the audience; essentially Weiser is the focal point of film’s metaphor and central themes that anybody is capable of change (which are also the themes of Dreyman’s plays). Wiesler transforms from a cold-blooded Stasi agent, looking forward to furthering his career and ruining the lives of others, into a heroic figure attempting to help end a dictatorship that had power over the country for the past forty years. Some criticism has been made of Wieser’s transformation from Stasi agent to hero, but they are on a highway to nothing as Wieser’s transformation was the result his releasing of emotions upon hearing beautiful music (Lenin once said ‘If I had listened to Beethoven's Appassionata Sonata more, I might not have finished the Revolution’). Wiesler’s transformation is also due to the realisation that the socialist system imposed on the East German people was the cause of his empty life.
Donnersmarck successfully recreates the gloomy atmosphere of 1980s East Germany. Many East Berliners live in gray, bleak and lifeless surroundings with the landscape dominated by the ugly, gray Soviet architecture of the cold war era. These buildings are nothing more than gray blocks, dour and drab, leaving very little beauty in the East German state whose government regulates any beauty that finds its way out of the ugliness of East Germany, so that the people are not experiencing beauty in its natural form. Hagen Bogdanski’s cinematography is bleak, it can even be said to be boring, but it captures the type of atmosphere that I imagine a country with such a high suicide rate to have.
Secret police forces such as the Gestapo and The Stasi always build an atmosphere of paranoia and fear. In these types of situations, it is impossible to know whom to trust, who is an informant, the informant could be your next-door neighbour, or, even more worrying, one slip of the tongue could lead yourself (or others) in a life-threatening situation. It is a terrifying thought. Secret police forces bring out a climate of fear and mistrust and Donnersmarck’s mesmerising drama brings those two climates out supremely well. The result of all this tension, empathy and respect is one of the most satisfying and perfect endings that Donnersmarck could ever write.
Donnersmarck’s film treats a dark of era of German history with sensitivity and respect, he captures the mood inside Germany and the glorious moment when the Berlin Wall fell (one of the film’s most moving scenes). There is no build up to the fall of the wall, which illuminates the suddenness of its fall (Weisler was told that he would continue to burn open envelopes for twenty years). The Lives of Others is a masterpiece and one of the finest films to come out of Germany, much is owed to Ulrich Mühe’s superb performance in the central role, but credit must go to Donnersmarck who seemingly made such a film with the experience of a director twice his age.