The Lives of others (Das Leben der Anderen) – a film review
In the mid 1980s Captain Gert Wiesler (Ulrich Muehe), a surveillance specialist and interrogation expert who works for the Ministry for State Security (Stasi), takes on the job of watching poet and playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) and his girlfriend, the actress Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck).
The surveillance is undertaken at the behest of Minister of Culture (Thomas Thieme), who openly, even publicly, lusts after Christa-Maria and wishes to dispose of the playwright, who is his rival.
Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s drama – the foreign language Oscar winner – owes something to the novels of Kafka and Orwell and Francis Ford Coppola’s 1974 classic film The Conversation.
I understand that although the Gestapo had 40,000 officials watching a country of 80 million, the East German Stasi employed 102,000 to control only 17 million.
Captain Gert Wiesler (Ulrich Muehe) is a grey cog in a huge grey wheel. Professionally, he’s identified only as HGW XX/7, and his dress, his flat, his general demeanour and personality and his way of life all underline this marginalization. When we first meet him we meet a man who is alienated from any vestige of human warmth.
Somehow, his surveillance of the playwright and the actress gradually awake memories of the noise and colour, the emotion and drama that has been eliminated from this grey man’s life, and he comes to question the ethics of his work and develops a sympathy for the victims which result in his wilfully falsifying his reports.
The Lives of Others slowly draws you in to its complex world. It is well cast and beautifully acted and directed. Hagen Bogdanski’s sombre, noir-influenced, yet incredibly busy camera-work adds the final touches, teasing out the minutia which separate the lives of the watchers and the watched, probing behind the implacable stare of the Stasi official and leading us, inexorably, to the magic moment of the fall of the wall; the precise dawning of the realisation that everything has changed and anyone can just walk away from their allotted place in this sad, cold and dismal excuse for a society.
While the alienation and the distances between people ostensibly sharing the same hopes and fears are immense in this film, and often so real as to be tangible, the script is also, finally, triumphantly, redemptive.