The lives of others
[ filmreviews ]
Awarded the best film of the European Film Awards and the Deutscher Filmpreis awards, and numerous film festivals, and the Best Foreign Film of the Academy Award of 2007, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others) is truly an outstanding work of cinema.
With precision of plot and imagery von Donnersmarck gradually demonstrates - through the spying of the Stasi (the former German Democratic Republic secret police force) - just how intellectually and spiritually pernicious is such a paranoid governmental system as the former GDR. The beloved GDR playwright Georg Dreyman, despite his almost idealistic support of the system and squeaky-clean credentials (he is, supposedly, admired even by Minister Bruno Hempf) is suddenly suspected of Western leanings, and an equally idealistic spy in the Communist regime, Capt Gerd Wiesler, is ordered to investigate. As Georg and his actress girlfriend, Christa-Maria Sieland, attend a party, the Stasi moves in, installing microphones in the light switches, inserting cables into the walls, and connecting all to an attic space above the apartments. The Stasi, who apparently know everything about everyone, even threaten a neighbor of Dreyman’s, who observes their comings and goings, with her daughter’s firing from a position in the university.
Much of the early part of the film simply outlines the process of spying, as Wiesler listens in to every aspect of Dreyman’s life, including his love-making and statements in support of GDR systems. Had the film gone no further it might have revealed to audiences who had never known or forgotten about the abolishment of privacy that existed in that system. But von Donnersmarck takes this work in new directions by creating in Dreyman an innately "Good Man," a man who clearly believes in the Communist system and attempts to creatively work within its restrictive structures - a man symbolically connected to this idea in the film through a gift of sheet music "Sonata for a Good Man" from his director friend, Jerska.
When Wiesler reports this to his friend and superior, Lt-Col Anton Grubitz, he is merely encouraged to "get" something on Dreyman, and as he observes the comings and goings of both Dreyman and his girlfriend, it becomes clear that Christa-Maria is, in fact, being forced into a relationship with Minister Hempf. His role shifts from a simple observance of duty to his recognition that he is now in the position of a kind of traitor, a man being used to get Dreyman out of the way. It is almost at that moment that we begin to observe changes in Wiesler, who in his life of complete servitude has seemingly never thought of any possible evil in his acts. Suddenly, Wiesler, through his voyeuristic actions, is slowly awakened to sexuality and art.
He also soon realizes that things have begun to unwind in Dreyman’s life. His girlfriend’s weekly outings with the Minister come between them, as he encourages her to stay in and accept the consequences of her refusal to give in to Hempf’s sexual demands. His director friend Jerska, blacklisted for several years, commits suicide. An article Dreyman writes of the rise of suicide in the GDR, whose government denies any involvement in these deaths by changing the language itself - describing suicide as "self-murder" - must be smuggled out of the country for publication. And bit by bit, Dreyman has no choice but to participate in illegal activities, hiding a special typewriter in the floor, meeting with dissident friends, etc. Without a safe place to meet, the group decides to test Dreyman’s apartment to see if it is bugged, pretending that they are planning to smuggle someone to the West. For the first time perhaps in his life, Wiesler determines not to act appropriately, not to report the incident, but in so doing ultimately dooms Dreyman and his friends.
The various strategies and plots Dreyman and his friends begin to hatch are portrayed by Wiesler as plans for a celebratory play. When his article on suicide appears in the West, however, Wiesler’s superiors become suspicious - at the very moment that Minister Hempf grows disenchanted with his actress prey. Christa-Maria is arrested for accepting illegal narcotics and Dreyman’s apartment is searched and plundered; yet no typewriter is found. As a master Stasi interrogator, Wiesler is given no choice but to interrogate Dreyman’s girlfriend, intimidating her to reveal the location of the playwright’s typewriter. In a devastatingly painful scene, Christa-Maria gives in to their demands, simultaneously destroying her lover and her own sanity.
She is released, but as the Stasi return to search Dreyman’s apartment, she runs from the house into the street, facing a car head-on in yet another act of "self-murder." Ironically, when the Stasi check the floorboards where they have been told the typewriter is stashed, they (and Dreyman) are shocked to find that it is missing - clearly Wiesler has gotten to the apartment before their arrival. The former servant of the Stasi, Wiesler is demoted to the position of a letter opener - a spy whose job is to steam open the letters of his fellow countrymen and read them for possible infractions.
Had Donnersmarck ended his film here it would have stood as a stronger statement of the effects of governmental paranoia. Even if one found flaws - as I did - in his presentment of the sudden changes in Wiesler’s personality, one could have read this as a fable to possibility in a world where nothing is allowed to chance.
The director, however, carries the film beyond the fall of the Berlin Wall, as Dreyman, now free to present his dramas (which, unfortunately, seem to be terrible theater in the few scenes we witness), encounters former minister Hempf, inquiring of him why his apartment had been the exception to Stasi spying. Hempf gloatingly reveals that Dreyman had not been made an exception, that he need only check the lights and walls to find the traces of government intrusion. Returning home, the playwright pulls apart the walls of his apartment in a manner that somewhat reminds one of Harry Caul’s maniacal destruction of his own apartment in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation. After uncovering the truth and realizing that his girlfriend may evidently led the Stasi to him, Dreyman visits the state archives, where it is revealed that Wiesler had purposely misled the government in his reports. In a kind of reversal of power, Dreyman now "looks up" Wiesler, only to discover a man now clearly poverty-stricken, working as day-laborer in distributing fliers. The author makes no attempt to communicate, championing the man anonymously in his novel based upon his experiences, Sonata for a Good Man.
This later part of the film unnecessarily pulls the story away from its Kafka-like implications and detracts from the haunting and terrible tale of a reality that seems beyond belief. As it ends, Dreyman is almost presented as a kind of new hero, an exemplar of how the "good men" of the old GDR will transform a new Germany. Of far greater importance is the realization that the world is in constant danger of such paranoiac structures - a danger, if people like President Bush and others who use "terrorism" as tool to constrict our individual rights succeed - may effect even own supposedly free lives in the USA.