East Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 was a parallel world, defined by an oppressive government that controlled and monitored every aspect of its citizens' lives. The 2003 satire Good Bye Lenin! put a nostalgic spin on life under communist rule, where gunmetal gray seemed to be the national color scheme and love of party trumped romantic love.
But director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's The Lives of Others takes an entirely different tack in portraying life in the former German Democratic Republic as soul-crushing and hopeless.
In a communist system of absolute control, the Stasi secret police enforced the will of the state. The film, which also won an Academy Award last weekend for a Best Foreign Language Film, opens in 1984 with one of the Stasi's faithful functionaries, Capt. Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe), interrogating a suspected subversive, and then playing a recording of the interrogation for a classroom of Stasi-in-training. When a student questions the harshness of the interrogation, Wiesler makes a small mark by the student's name.
The message is clear: No one escapes notice in East Germany, and everyone can have his future ruined by a statement, a joke, or by having the wrong friends.
With his rail-thin body, buttoned-up outfits and ramrod posture, Wiesler seems in every regard the ruthless, inflexible automaton. His blank, nondescript presence never registers as he takes notes on the street corner or lays in wait in apartment lobbies.
It is only when he begins to monitor two artists -- writer Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) and his actress girlfriend, Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck) -- that something essential changes in his commitment to the cause.
Stationed in the attic of the couple's apartment building, he initially listens in on their lives with the haughty judgment of a cruel, pitiless god. But as he continues to monitor their lives, Wiesler becomes overwhelmed with sympathy. They open his eyes to another way of life filled with music and creation, love and sexual passion. After a day of following their actions like a movie-goer nestled in a theater, he returns to his featureless apartment block to eat dinner alone. His only intimate, warm human connection in a cold, grim life is the zaftig prostitute who services other lonely Stasi men in his building.
There is a fascinating parallel set up between Georg as a creative trying to write plays that will not offend the party sensibility and Wiesler, whose own reports on the actions he eavesdrops on become like a screenplay of his subjects' lives, with damning details omitted to protect them.
Perhaps testament to 33-year-old von Donnersmarck's intellectual bent (the director studied philosophy at Oxford), The Lives of Others is as sympathetic to some of the functionaries who had to pursue the inhumane, ruinous agendas of the East German government as it is to their victims.
As Wiesler continues to monitor the couple, the true purpose of his involvement becomes clear. A highly placed Minister Bruno Hempf (Thomas Thieme) has sexual designs on Christa-Maria, and it is only in destroying romantic rival Georg that he can have her.
In his first film, the remarkably skilled von Donnersmarck has created a taut thriller with soul whose insight is that even bureaucrats pay a price in the process of enforcing a vicious administration.
That insight is made forcefully in the look of the film. Life has been leached out of not only the friends who rat out friends and the neighbors who turn away from injustice to protect themselves. It has made the entire landscape drab and colorless. Von Donnersmarck's color scheme of watery beige and ash gray conveys how the blood has been drained from this world. Like Fritz Lang's dystopian nightmare Metropolis or Alfonso Cuarón's Children of Men, von Donnersmarck creates a world believably devoid of hope.
Lack of freedom or privacy seems to have destroyed something necessary for human life to operate normally. The sense of emotional constriction is intense -- there is little to look forward to and much to fear. Art remains the only pleasure, the only trace of human passion and hope. It is art that keeps Christa-Maria and Georg going, and it is art that ultimately forces Wiesler to recognize a higher purpose than the state.
At times, von Donnersmarck may stack his deck too visibly; the party functionaries are fat cats, unattractive and overfed, while their victims are physically appealing and made more noble by virtue of that fact.
Despite being set in recent history, The Lives of Others also serves as a cautionary tale -- a possible window into our own future. Its message about the life-sapping potential of a government that puts power above its human citizens is as applicable to the architects of the War on Terror as to the former communist countries that used wiretapping, torture, harassment and arrest to achieve their aims. The Lives of Others shows both the allure of playing God with other lives and the moral consequences.
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