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Cinema Junkie by Beth Accomando

The Lives of Others

Good Bye Lenin took a nostalgic look back on life behind the Iron Curtain. But now The Lives of Others (opening February 16 at Landmarks Hillcrest Cinemas) casts a colder eye on recent history with its tale of a Stasi agent and the people hes been ordered to watch.

The Lives of Others 1

The Oscar-nominated The Lives of Others

The Lives of Others begins in 1984. An opening title informs us that the Stasi (the East German Secret Police) employed 100,000 agents and recruited some 200,000 informants. Their goal was to know everything about the lives of others. According to director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck German movies produced after the reunification generally, and strangely, depict the GDR (the German Democratic Republic or former East Germany) as funny or moving. But he had a different perspective. His parents came from the East, and he remembered visiting the East and seeing the fear in the people he met: Fear of the Stasi (The State Security), fear of the 100,000 highly trained employees whose sights were trained on one thing: The Lives Of Others, the lives of those who thought differently, who were too free spirited and above all, the artists and people working in the arts. Every aspect of life was recorded. There was no private sphere and nothing was sacred, not even ones closest family members.


Thats the East Germany that von Donnersmarck wanted to capture in his film The Lives of Others. So the director chose a Stasi officer as his main character, a captain named Gerd Wiesler (subtly portrayed by Ulrich Mhe). We meet Captain Wiesler in a classroom where hes teaching a group of young people about the ways in which one can extract a confession from a suspect. When a young man suggests the techniques are inhumane, Wiesler disagrees and then makes a notation of the mans name on his class list. Wiesler, applauded for his expert skill as an interrogator, is dedicated to his job and operates on the theory that no one is above suspicion.

Lieutenant Colonel Anton Grubitz (Ulrich Tukur), Wiesler's former classmate who now heads the Culture Department at the State Security, invites Wiesler to accompany him to the premiere of the new play by Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch), a playwright deemed a friend of the state. But at the theater Wiesler doesnt watch the play, he watches the people through his small opera glasses. When asked his opinion of the play, Wiesler suggests that the playwright, may not be as clean as everyone thinks. This leads to Wiesler being assigned the task of watching Dreyman and his actress-girlfriend Christa-Maria Sieland ( Mostly Martha's Martina Gedeck).

Wiesler dutifully waits outside their apartment, tracking their comings and goings. He also oversees the installation of electronic surveillance throughout their apartment so he can listen to everything thats said. In a scene thats almost comical in its absurdity, we witness how the Stasi invade the apartment while Dreyman is out and quickly install multiple listening devices in every room including the bathroom. Then Wiesler sets up shop in the attic and begins monitoring the couple.

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The Lives of Others

But Wiesler discovers that the reasons for the investigation of Dreyman were not quite politically motivated. Minister Bruno Hempf (Thomas Thieme), a superior to Wieslers boss, has long had eyes for the attractive Sieland and is trying to coerce her into sexual relations. As the investigation proceeds, something strange begins to happen to Wiesler. Instead of amassing evidence against Dreyman and Sieland, Wiesler starts to develop sympathy for the couple. He sneaks into their home to borrow works of literature and then begins to doctor up the transcripts in order to delete incriminating evidence because, as Wiesler had so astutely suggested, Dreyman is not as clean as the state had imagined.


Writer-director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck has crafted a meticulous and intense character study in which he suggests that even the most extreme person is, under the right circumstances, capable of change. Von Donnersmarck frequently sets up scenes that intercut between Weisler (stuck in the tiny attic room) and the events in Dreymans apartment. Tension builds as Wiesler moves from being a passive observer to a concerned individual who wants to protect Dreyman and Sieland. The transformation is believable because it occurs slowly and subtly, and in a manner befitting Wieslers character. He ends up shifting his devotion and dedication from his job to the couple. The meticulous care he once gave to amassing incriminating data is now given over to covering up that evidence. And through it all Wiesler maintains the same quiet, seeming uninvolved exterior demeanor.

The film recalls Francis Ford Coppolas The Conversation , in which Gene Hackman is hired to place a young couple under surveillance but he grows emotionally involved in their case. Both films take a low key and meticulous approach that mirrors the personalities of their lead characters. And bot show how these supposedly dispassionate outsiders manage to become emotionally entangled in the events they are meant to observe.

Both a tense political thriller and a compelling human drama, The Lives of Others takes us from 1984five years before Glasnost and the fall of the Berlin Wallto 1991 and a reunited Germany. By taking us beyond the Dreyman case, the film takes the story on some interesting twists and turns. The resolution may strike some as a little too neat but its an effectively satisfying ending that remains true to the nature of the main character.

The Lives of Others (in German with English subtitles) offers an engrossing character study that suggests that no matter how hard a government may try to control its people, it cannot ever completely control human nature. In a statement, the director has said: In the film, each character asks questions that we confront every day: how do we deal with power and ideology? Do we follow our principles or our feelings? More than anything else, The Lives of Others is a human drama about the ability of human beings to do the right thing, no matter how far they have gone down the wrong path. In that respect it shares some of the themes with fellow Best Foreign Film Nominee Pan's Labyrinth. Both films suggest that people are constantly faced with choices that require compliance or disobedience, and the choices you make define who you are.

Companion viewing: The Conversation, Mostly Martha, Good-Bye Lenin