I can only imagine that the race for best foreign language film in this year’s Oscars was down to the wire. Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth took home three Oscars for makeup, art direction, and cinematography, but failed to take home best foreign language picture. This went to Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s The Lives of Others, a brilliant German film about the State Security agency in East Germany in 1984. Many viewers might quickly draw parallels between the Stasi’s spying and interrogation tactics and current questions surrounding American policies of torture, imprisonment, and interrogation and rightfully so. However, the film focuses more intensely on the life of one man living and working within this corrupt system and his ability to make good, redemptive decisions. However, though this film sees redemption, it does not wrap it up in a pretty package.The Lives of Others begins in 1984 in former East Germany (the German Democratic Republic) and focuses on the activities of the Stasi, a vigilant network of politicians and spies that sought “to know everything.” The film specifically follows a Stasi surveillance mission covering one of East Germany’s most famous playwrights, Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) and his girlfriend, Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck). Convinced that he is a subverter, Lieutenant Colonel Anton Grubitz (Ulrich Tuku) orders Captain Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Muhe) to spy on the artistic couple. Wiesler and his men plaster Georg’s apartment with bugs and listen in on his life twenty-four hours a day. Wiesler and his crew find nothing until Dreyman becomes increasingly agitated with the government’s censorship of his artistic colleagues and the realization that his girlfriend has been forced into a sexual relationship with Minister Bruno Hempf (Thomas Thieme). Growing more and more frustrated, he finally writes an article on life in East Germany and smuggles it to the West for publication. Its successful release enrages Minister Hempf and Lieutenant Colonel Grubitz, both of whom beef up surveillance efforts to discover the identity of the author. Lieutenant Colonel Grubitz forces Captain Wiesler to interrogate Christina Maria in order to give up her boyfriend who they believe is the prime suspect. She does and tells them where the evidence is hidden; however, when Lieutenant Colonel Grubitz and his crew search Georg’s apartment, they find nothing. Believing she has ruined her boyfriend’s life and not knowing that Wieslder had removed the evidence before Grubitz arrived, Christina commits suicide. Years later, Dreyman learns that he had been under strict surveillance after all, but is confused (as is Minister Hempf) as to why he was never captured. He researches the files on his case (now made public since the fall of the Berlin Wall) and realizes that Wiesler had forged the events to keep him safe. Dreyman seeks out Wiesler, finds him, but never makes contact with him. Two years later, he publishes a book entitled Sonata for a Good Man, dedicating it to Wiesler.
As mentioned earlier, the Stasi’s techniques are despicable, robbing the citizens of any measure of freedom. While on one level this is a political film, it is much more than that. The Lives of Others is about Wiesler’s involvement in the Stasi as one of their most effective and loyal interrogators. The early scenes of the film cut back and forth between Wiesler’s interrogation tactics and his class lectures on interrogation, revealing a seemingly cold, calculated, detached officer. However, as the film progresses, we quickly realize that this cold veneer covers a lonely life lived in almost complete solitude except for his growing interest and involvement in Georg and Christina’s life. He begins to get so wrapped up in their lives that he envisions himself as either Georg or Christina at various points in the film. Rather than further distancing himself from these people, Wiesler’s surveillance brings him emotionally closer to them and begins to change his interactions with others as well. When opportunities arise for Wiesler to make reports to the Stasi against random citizens for speaking against the government, he lets them pass. When the time comes for Georg’s certain arrest, Wiesler removes the illegal typewriter and drafts of the government-damning article.
This film explores Wiesler’s character with great subtlety. In one scene, Georg plays a sonata that his friend Jerska (a black-listed director who eventually hangs himself) gave him for his birthday. The scene cuts back and forth with shots of Wiesler listening in. When Georg finishes, he asks Christina, “Can anyone who has really heard this music truly be a bad person?” The film immediately cuts to a close up of Wiesler as tears roll down his face. The Lives of Others reveals the changes that occur in Wiesler throughout his political, and growing personal, involvement with Georg and Christina. By standing up to his superiors and forging the surveillance papers, he begins to atone for his past unquestioning involvement in this corrupt system. His most redemptive act, perhaps, of removing Georg’s incriminating evidence is not without horrible, unforeseen consequences to others. Wiesler knows such subversion will ruin his career, but he willingly accepts demotion, especially in light of it having lead to Christina’s death. Unfortunately, the film also implies that Christina’s death was punishment for turning over her boyfriend who was so devoted to both her and his ideals.
In the end, The Lives of Others is a magnificent film, beautifully shot and methodically paced. The performances are nearly perfect, especially Muhe’s as Wiesler. His quiet dignity allows the character’s complexity to shine. The film does not settle for simple good vs. evil dichotomies but reveals the depth to which even the most well-meaning, or even rebellious, citizens are involved in corrupt systems. Christina poses a difficult question to Georg. She asks, “Don’t I need this whole system? They can destroy you… They are the ones who decide what we write and perform.” However, the film holds out a hope, and not a false or simple one at that, that we can also act for good within the corrupt systems in which we are so desperately entangled.