(Sony Classics) Ulrich Muhe, Sebastian Koch, Martina Gedeck, Ulrich Tukur, Thomas Thieme, Volkmar Kleinert. Directed by Florian Henckel von Dommersmarck
Knowledge is power. In a repressive state, the more knowledge that the state has of its people, the more power it has over them.
In the communist government of East Germany in 1991, the secret police – known as the Stasi – have absolute control over the people of East Berlin. With an army of informants and strategically placed listening devices, the hallmark is that the knowledge of the lives of others protects the state and makes it stronger. Captain Gerd Wiesler (Muhe), one of the most skilled interrogators of the Stasi, believes this implicitly.
While attending a play with his ambitious superior Grubitz (Tukur), they run into Minister Hempf (Thieme). He remarks that the playwright, Georg Dreyman (Koch) may not be as loyal to the GDR as was first assumed and that a full-scale surveillance operation might not be frowned upon. Grubitz pounces on the opportunity and assigns the operation to the personal control of Wiesler, one of his most trusted men.
Dreyman lives with the celebrated actress Christa-Marie Sieland (Gedeck) and as such are something of the Brad and Angelina of East Germany. They have never fallen under the scrutiny of the state before and at first, it is apparent why. While most of their peers are critical of the GDR, Dreyman is not. Even when he assumes that he is in the privacy of his own home, he utters not a word against the government. However, Dreyman’s loyalty wavers when he discovers that his girlfriend has been pressured into a sexual relationship with Minister Hempf. It is further eroded when Dreyman’s friend and mentor, Albert Jerska (Kleinert) commits suicide after having been effectively blacklisted by the GDR for seven years.
No longer content to be silent against the GDR’s repressive policies, Dreyman is determined to inform the outside world about the high rate of suicide in the GDR which its government has covered up. He authors an article in Der Spiegel, the West German magazine, about the subject. Published anonymously, the article creates an uproar in the corridors of power. The Stasi becomes determined to find out who published the offending article.
Wiesler has been observing all this. He alone knows who authored the article, and that information could be advantageous to his own career advancement, as well as that of Grubitz. However, Wiesler himself has doubts. Having seen first-hand the corruption of the government and its effect on the people, he wonders if he is working on the right side. Enchanted by the freedom – however repressed it may be – of the artistic couple, he is drawn into events that will change not only his life, but the lives of those he has been charged to spy on.
Director von Dommersmarck has created an amazing movie, all the more so because of its miniscule budget (roughly $2 million American, which on most Hollywood productions would barely cover the catering). He manages to create a great deal of tension, and in many ways this reminds me of the classic Francis Ford Coppola film The Conversation. There, as in here, the act of surveillance changes those who are doing the listening.
Most of the actors lived in East Germany during the era portrayed here (although von Dommersmarck claimed that was unintentional) and so they bring a certain amount of personal experience into the movie. This has all the elements of a great thriller, one that would do Hitchcock proud, but it isn’t a thriller precisely. There are equal amounts of drama and character study as well.
Muhe does a magnificent job of playing the quiet, emotionless Wiesler. His face registers nothing, no anger nor joy; he is a faceless bureaucrat doing a job. And yet there is sadness in his eyes, almost as if deep down he realizes what he is doing is wrong. This contradiction is at the crux of The Lives of Others and is one of two things that make it so compelling.
The other thing is a little more esoteric and a bit more political. The question that this movie raises is not just about the communist dictatorship of the GDR, but about our own system. Given the advancements in computer tracking and listening devices, our own privacy has been severely compromised. How much of our lives does our own government keep tabs on – and is the security that it supposedly affords worth the potential for abuse? Do we have an expectation of privacy anymore? Does big business have the ethics to keep our information private? Certainly this movie provides an answer to these very important questions, although on the last one you may have to draw your own conclusions.
While the movie runs a bit on the long side, I was never bored. Because the thriller elements keep the tension level high, the viewer is left on the edge of their seat for much of the movie. This won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar back in 2008, and could easily have been the Best Picture overall. This is one of the best movies of the decade and you should see it if you have a chance.
WHY RENT THIS: This affords a look at life in the kind of environment that Americans may not have a good deal of experience with, even if we are rapidly becoming a similar environment.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: At two hours and 17 minutes, the movie runs a bit long.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s some nudity and a good deal of sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This movie received more Lola nominations (the German equivalent of the Oscars) than any in history.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: While most DVD and Blu-Ray releases contain some sort of commentary track, this one is noteworthy in that it is all director von Dommersmarck and it is one of the most extensive and informative tracks I’ve ever heard.
FINAL RATING: 10/10
TOMORROW: Day Night Day Night