The Lives of Others

An officer of the German Democratic Republic learns the price for gaining some humanity in the 2006 film The Lives of Others

Starring Ulrich Muhe, Sebastian Koch and Martina Gedeck
Written and Directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarch
German with English subtitles
Released by Sony Picture Classics
138 minutes

When your every move is monitored, do you ever really have the chance to be free?   This is the question asked in the film The Lives of Others, which delves the viewer into the totalitarian world of 1980s East Germany.   One outburst of opinion against the socialist republic and your reputation, your career, or even your life could be in serious risk.

And behind every interrogation, every wire tapping and imprisonment was the all powerful “Stasi”, men and women whose sole purpose was to find fault in their fellow East Germans, spy on them and then crush them by any means.   One such man is Captain Wiesler (Ulrich Muhe), a man who spends so much time focusing on other people’s lives that he doesn’t have any time for his own.   We learn that Wiesler lives in a sad and empty apartment and his only “friend” is a colleague who uses Wiesler for his intuition so that he can further his own career.

Wiesler’s latest case is that of Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch), a star of the East German artistic community.   Life is good for this playwright: while his friends are getting blacklisted, Dreyman’s plays are still getting produced and he’s in love with actress Christa-Maria (Maria Gedeck).   Everyone else considers Dreyman a national treasure, but Wiesler becomes so convinced something is up that he decides to personally monitor this case himself.

Wiesler prides himself to be a man who can extract information from anyone but instead through listening in on Dreyman’s private moments Wiesler comes to respect him.   What begins as respect eventually morphs into a completely unhealthy obsession that will change the lives of both men forever.

For this usually anally rigid man who’s never experienced real intimacy, stealing Dreyman’s belongings and stalking his girlfriend is the only way Wiesler knows how to be affectionate.   Dreyman meanwhile never suspects that a stranger spying on him in the attic is the only thing keeping him out of a Stasi jail.

The brilliance of both Muhe’s performance and the script is that Wiesler’s shift from a man who throws a student out of his class who dares to question him to a man who begins to develop some humanity is so gradual that it’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment it begins.   That being said, the film never feels dull.   Rather, each scene keeps you so enthralled that the running time of over two hours feels like it goes by in no time at all.

The Lives of Others is not only a provocative and exciting piece of filmmaking but it brings up some hard truths to consider.   Even though the German Democratic Republic was considered a harsh and brutal dictatorship, in this post 9-11 society governments spying on us “for our own protection” is hardly something that’s only in the history books.

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