The Lives of Others is a masterpiece. This Academy Award-winning film is highly intelligent and never insults the intelligence of its audience.
This dramatic thriller is set in East Germany during the socially repressive era just before the fall of the Berlin wall. Gerd Wiesler, played brilliantly by the late Ulrich Mühe, is a member of the Stasi secret police and is an expert in surveilance and interrogation. But his beliefs are brought into question as he engages in an assignment that has him listening in on the conversations that take place in the appartment of a German intellectual and playwrite (Georg Dreyman) thought to be a threat to the ruling German Democratic Republic. As he listens in on Dreyman’s life, Wiesler begins to awaken from his stringent existence, and experiences wonder, joy, and sorrow as if for the first time.
On the DVD for this movie there is an interview with the director (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck) that is very illuminating. In it, he says that he wants the audience to go away from the movie with a sense of the importance of having a balance between principles and feelings. He is hoping that the film sufficiently displays the danger of letting principles bury a rich emotional connection to the world. At the same time, Donnersmarck doesn’t vilify principles or merely equate them with Communism. He hopes to explore the possibility of a life rich with both principles and emotions.
The movie doesn’t just demonize the oppressive Stasi. It is very even-handed, even while it has a clear moral landscape. Wiesler isn’t the only one who is changed in this film. Much of the change that takes place in Dreyman, the playwright, is fascinating too. In the beginning, he shies away from conflict and plays it safe in light of the losses he has seen at the hands of the oppressive German Democratic Republic. He does not approve of arrogant stances, and yet he comes to the place where he must take a stand against Stasi repression if any of his work and life is to be truly honest. It is love and respect that bring the writer to his senses and enables him to publish statements about what the GDR government has demanded of its citizens and what it has taken from them.
As he listens in on this man’s life, Wiesler is merely voyeuristic at first (just as our relationship to the characters in the film is a voyeuristic one – we are voyeurs of Wiesler’s transformation, and the director hopes that by looking over Wiesler’s shoulder as he looks over Dreyman’s shoulder, we will be transformed too). But Wiesler is not just a fly on the wall. In a godlike way, he begins to assert himself into the relationships of those he is listening to. He secretly reveals to Dreyman that his girlfriend, Christa-Maria Sieland, has been sleeping with another man. Wiesler holds privileged knowledge about her involvement with a scheming government official and seeks to reveal just enough to set in motion a chain of events that he hopes will both challenge and preserve the lives he has grown to respect. He seeks to test the limits of the loving relationship he has witnessed. He does what he has been trained to do, which is to break relationships down in order to see what it is made of, but this time, he also hopes to find something more solid, more gracious and forgiving than he can imagine.
The final scenes of this film, and the final words spoken, are so fine, so hard won, so heartening, I was shocked awake in the presence of such goodness so artfully rendered.