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Reflections of a working writer and reader

 

 

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.

Portrait of Inquisitor 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.

6 Responses to “The Lives of others (Das Leben der Anderen) – a film review”

  1. I loved the film and also felt that redemption lay at the heart of it. I believe there have been objections because it was felt that the film presented a picture that wasn’t true and gave a false picture by presenting a “good” Stasi official. Whether or not such a person ever existed is for me not the point.

    I also liked Goodbye to Lenin, which looked to some extent on what might have been lost in the GDR with the coming of capitalism.

    jb says: I agree about the ‘good Stasi official’ not being the point. Don’t people understand when they’re being presented with a metaphor? And I also saw Goodbye Lenin and didn’t enjoy it as much as this film. Both were good in a way, though neither, I think, were profound. Change does involve loss, though, always. That’s an important lesson to learn consciously. Only then can we know for certain that not all loss is bad.

  2. Steve Clackson says:

    I had not heard of this movie John thx. The Conversation is a classic!

    jb says: Let us know what you think when you’ve seen it.

  3. james says:

    Good film indeed! Does anyone out there hold faith that one day we here in the UK might be able to make films with this level of maturity and depth.

    Feels mean to criticise it but I think the story could have done with a leap in time and space at times, particularly towards the end; instead of playing out every scene – and demonstrating every emotion, I think it could have left a little to the audience imagination here and there, It did feel a bit long.

    Also didn’t Wiesler change sides a bit too easily?

    jb says: Hi James, yes I felt it was a tad too long and I didn’t believe in Wiesler’s change of mind at all. There were aspects of the film that were undoubtably made with the American market in mind. But there were so many good things about it that I was ready to forgive a couple of lapses.
    And yes, perhaps faith isn’t the word, but I do think the British film industry is capable of making a film of maturity and depth; though I wonder if it would manage to get it funded.

  4. james says:

    HI John –

    I saw LOO again last night. Though I enjoyed it second time around, I felt the same way about the length.

    It struck me this time however, that Wiesler had been sidelined into a teaching position when we meet him, where his perspective had become theoretical almost abstract; which made him despite his instincts, unsuitable for work in the field. Even though the idea to spy on Dreyman was Wiesler’s, it was informed by idealism possibly more than experience. Also Wiesler’s boss, Hempf told him after handing Wiesler the assignment, it’s not teaching now Wiesler, it’s results that count, not marks!

    This time around I accepted more that the accumulation of events allowed his transformation to a greater degree than at first; the integrity of those he was spying on, Hempf’s hypocrisy, his own loneliness. Though it could be argued it wasn’t quite enough.
    I recommend a second look at it; maybe you have?

    Ah the British film industry, where to start? At the low end of the scale we have a kind of sub -Carry On type nonsense; and at the higher end, relentlessly grim, joyless Social Realism. Somewhere in the middle we have film makers attempting a different take on that social realism.

    There are some successes however. Stephen Frears’ The Queen. Shane Meadows for me didn’t quite hit the mark with This is England, but it’s certainly worth a watch. If you can ignore the scored music which is utterly awful.

    There have been one or two decent films; though nothing selected for Cannes this year.

    jb says: Hi James. I’d like to see the film again. It doesn’t seem to be around my part of the world any more. Perhaps it’ll return if I’m patient.

  5. Steffi says:

    This film is probably the best film I have seen in years, with an absolutely intelligent script and with so many brlliant details in the characters, atmosphere and setting hat you have to see it more than once.
    Knowing that it had won the academy award made me go to see it with great expectations and I was very suprised that it more than met my expectations (which does not happen often). I did have the feeling, though, that during the first half an hour it was moving along a bit slowly but than picked up on the storyline and became so grapping that I felt time was flying. I must admit, though, that having spent my entire childhood in East Germany it represented more than a film to me. As for a lot of my family is still living the aftermaths of that time the film really gave me some answers to why people would engage in such immoral behaviour and what it must have been like to go through the “Stasi treatment” and having to mistrust people around you. I could feel the power that the Stasi officers and their informals had over people by ruinning their careers, relationsships and after all lives and the fear and submission to such power on the other side. After all, in a state where you were not allowed to leave the country where could you go after you had lost your job, your partner, your colleges and friends? When in the film Christa-Maria, the actress and partner of Dreymann, betrays him, I couldn’t feel anything but that I most likely had done the same thing. On the other hand the film portrait in a very good way that not the belief in socialism and the state was the main drive for a lot of people to work with the Stasi system, but the feeling of having power over others and receiving privileges in return.
    For me officer Gerd Wiesler’s sudden change was not that unbelievable at all. At the beginning he is shown as one of the “true believers” in socialism. We hear that he was an excellent student at the university and see that his friend although lazy and uninteressted in politics (he had Wiesler write this eassys at uni) has already gained a much higher position in the stasi ministry than himself. I think Wiesler thinks of interrogations and controlling others as a necessity to protect the political idea and the “good” people”, just as we try to protect us from terroism and crime today (Cameras all over Great Britain!). When he becomes to realize that those people in power do not just protect the system but destroy other people’s lives for pure personal reasons, as does Minister Hempf to get together with the actress Christa-Maria, his beliefs crumble. After all, he is thinking for himself, a cultured man with feelings, we watch him crying when Dreymann plays the piano for his dead friend and reading Brecht. I don’t think he has bad intentions with what he is doing and hates to see innocent people as are Dreymann and his partner watch to suffer. That’s why I liked the metaphor of the piano piece very much and the ending is not too fairy-tale. By not obeying the orders and keeping information from his boss he missed out on a lot – money, career and even after the change a descent job. I don’t think there were many high ranked Stasi officers like this, but certainly the one or other, and a lot of little informants (IM’s like your neighbour) that were doubtful but full of fear. The film shows what still applies today for everyone – even we might be a good person with good intentions we can still do the wrong things and harm others with it (Iraq war ?). It is so easy to judge from the outside and look at people as good or bad, but it is hardly ever that clear cut.
    Something that I also liked very much about the film was the humour in it. There were so many moments where I was close to or had to cry but there were just as many scenes that made me laugh and picked up on the east german humour very well. I still remember quite well that we had a lot of “Honi (Honecker)-Jokes” going around all the time and we had to watch out who of the teachers was close to not get our parents into trouble.
    Only one thing disturbed me a bit. Although the colour of the film and emptiness of the streets created the right atmosphere it must have been purely for that reason. The film was also only set in autumn-wintertime. No one from the outside should think that East Germany was that dull and poor. There was a car in every family and there were not just white Trabis and Wartburgs parked along the streets. We had multi-coloured cars, and a few more varieties. But this I can easily forgive because the atmosphere created suited the theme of the film.

    jb says: Thanks, Steffi. It’s nice to get a view from the inside.

  6. Heidi says:

    Excuse me for coming into your conversation, john and steffi, but I would be most curious for you, Steffi to talk about the transition from being an East German to a part of the United Germany. You see, I had this discussion with my friend, after we saw this film. I work in a hospital in Boston, Massachusetts, and a medical student from the former East Germany visited and we became friends for that time being. He told me that he had hoped that with the end of the Berlin Wall etc,,… that East Germany became it’s own country, at least for a while, instead of West Germany absorbing it. That the East Germans lost their identity and their unique history, far different from West Germany and that there was a commeradery in East Germans, a culture of surviving with life and color and humor, sneaking it all in, under the noses of the Stasi and the government, a closeness amongth friends, family and comrades, so to speak, that got washed up, drowned in the absorption and that he had moved to the western side, but quickly returned to the eastern side because that is where he felt more comfortable. Can you talk about this, if you read my bit? thanks, heidi