German director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s debut film, “The Lives of Others,” will serve as a reminder for all those who forgot the plot of George Orwell’s “1984,” with one difference: While the latter is fiction, the former was real, and painfully so.
Though it is his first, the movie has already earned von Donnersmarck an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film of the Year. It examines the secret surveillance system used by National Security in the former East Germany, focusing on the lives of Georg Dreyman, a famous playwright, and his girlfriend, the actress Christa-Maria Sieland — a successful couple with secretly unorthodox thoughts and openly unorthodox friends. As agent Gerd Wiesler, who is charged with the task of observing them, loses his professional detachment in the face of a growing emotional interest in the couple, the film unfolds into a revealing commentary on the total control the socialist state imposed over peoples’ lives, careers and even thoughts.
The opening sequence, one of the most strongly charged moments in the movie, depicts a classroom in which Wiesler calmly and methodically explains the most appropriate methods of torture-interrogation. After one of them makes the mistake of suggesting that these practices are “inhumane,” the lecturer adds a cross next to his name on the seating chart, thus setting up one of the major themes of the movie: the ease with which an entire human life could be crossed out in 1980s East Germany. It’s all done for the good of the native land, of course, and out of gratitude for “what this country has done for you.”
The main question the movie asks, however, is not what the country has done for its people, but what it is doing to them. The answers are both shocking and appalling: It is turning them into unwilling traitors and unsuspecting victims, forcing them to forfeit their freedom of speech and right of personal choice. For these people, simply keeping their mouths shut, popping pills in secret or drinking their grief away are no longer adequate options. There is a need for drastic measures, and, considering the desperate ease with which the characters plunge into them, the movie might as well have been called “The Suicides of Others.” The actual physical act, though, is a blissful escape compared to its predecessor, the emotional suicide caused by trampled pride and suppressed guilt.
Another weapon in the movie’s arsenal is the performances by the three leading actors. Martina Gedeck presents a vivid, moving and sympathy-inducing portrayal of a woman ready to save the man she loves and preserve the last vestiges of sanity in her life at any cost, but who is tormented by fear and taunted by her own self-preservation instincts. Ulrich Muhe’s face is a reflecting mirror for the entire range of complicated feelings Captain Gerd Wiesler is forced to deal with: his growing fascination with the lives of others, his guilt, his sudden readiness to help them and the realization of what this is going to cost him.
Still, it is exactly within Wiesler that the major flaw of the movie lies; the motivation behind his actions is far from convincing. “Do you still remember which side you are on?” his superior asks him at some point. While it is obvious that his immediate “yes” is a lie, it hardly ever becomes clear why. Just by observing Georg and Christa, he becomes interested in them to the point of obsession and is suddenly transformed into the communist agent variant of the Good Fairy, willingly jeopardizing his own career and well-being in order to help a couple of strangers. At this point the film underestimates itself, supposing that it hasn’t managed to get across that any selfless act in such an environment is not only foolish, but out of the question.
Another weak link in the structure of the film is its ending, which is so blatantly sappy it makes one wish the movie had ended on a strong note while it still could. And chances to do so dabound, but the movie misses all of them, stubbornly driving toward a feeble attempt at a (somewhat) melancholically happy resolution that feels artificial and forced, and fails to ameliorate the bitter aftertaste that “The Lives of Others” is sure to leave.
The atmosphere of “The Lives of Others” is as bleak, unnerving and depressing as life in East Germany must have been in the 1980s. Despite its disturbing effect on the viewer, the movie is also thought-provoking — a testament to its success in revealing the atrocities of the Socialist era and raising questions about dark periods of Europe’s recent past.