Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch), a celebrated East German playwright, doesn’t like the way his new play has turned out. Despite the fact the lead actress is his girlfriend, Christa (Martina Gedeck), he feels the plays director lacks the subtlety the material requires. The Cultural Minister congratulates Georg on the play and the artist asks him once again to lift the blacklist on his preferred director. Captain Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Muhe), a member of East Germany’s Secret Police, listens to this exchange and quietly suggests to the ministers that Dreyman should be watched. Wiesler is put in charge of the operation and the Secret Police soon has every inch of his apartment bugged. As Wiesler listens, he begins to get to know more and more about the playwright and begins to respect and like the artist. But his superiors become impatient and want some information about an article published anonymously in West Germany; they suspect Georg wrote it and need the evidence.
“The Lives of Others”, written and directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, is Germany’s official entry in this year’s Academy Awards. The film was just released in a number of theaters and represents an Oscar worthy film.
Set in 1984, the film presents a microcosm of what life was like in the former East Germany. The Secret Police employed vast numbers of employees and secret informants to keep track of and report on the activities of people who are under suspicion. An incredibly large number of people set out to spy on and watch a relatively small population. And the people of East Germany knew this system existed, which is why they look through the viewfinders of their doors, but if they see something suspicious, they remain silent. If they raise a fuss, and the Secret Police are involved, they will probably bring suspicion upon themselves. They may even disappear.
Georg’s neighbor, a single woman, watches the Wiesler and his men enter the playwrights’s department. After they finish, he senses the neighbor is watching and threatens her, in a way meant to ensure she remains quiet.
But Georg knows this system exists as well, even though he seems reluctant to embrace it. He wants to make some waves, cause some changes, because he thinks the system is unfair, so he writes an article and enlists a West German to transport it and publish it in Der Spiegel. As soon as the article is published, the East German government is in an uproar and insists they find the culprit. But Wiesler’s superiors suspect Georg and Wiesler doesn’t want to give him up so quickly. Thus begins an elaborate, well-plotted, subtle game of cat and mouse.
This isn’t the stuff of American spy films. Everything is fairly low key, yet none-the-less fascinating. Possibly more fascinating because we believe much of this is actually based on real things that could have and probably did happen.
Georg initially doesn’t believe he has been bugged, why would they go to the trouble, he toes the line, barely. But his friends are more cautious, they have had first hand experiences with the Secret Police and are suspicious of everyone, even him. Events soon lead him to believe their suspicions and he moves with an air of caution from that point forward, but he is unwilling to believe their suspicions about who may have reported him.
Sebastican Koch does a great job of portraying an artist who may not be happy with his current way of life, but he isn’t so unhappy he is willing to make radical changes. This is the way of life he is familiar with, has grown up with, is comfortable with, so he accepts it. As he begins to listen to his friends, share their suspicions, is feelings change slowly and he still holds out hope that perhaps they are wrong.
But the most interesting performance in the film comes from Ulrich Muhe. We first meet Captain Wiesler as he leads a seminar for new employees of the secret police, letting them listen to the tape of an interrogation lasting 40 hours. In the end, Wiesler got the information he wanted, but he imparts other information to the students. As he lectures, one of the students raises a question and Wiesler makes a mark next to his name, to remember to have him disciplined. As Wiesler learns more and more about Georg Dreyman, a subtle change happens, and Muhe shows this in a subtle way. His expressions change slightly, showing us how the knowledge he has learned while listening to this artist’s personal life has changed him. The change becomes more and more pronounced throughout, in subtle ways, and Muhe does a great job of presenting the conflicts in this character. A life long believer in the Secret Police, he secretly listens to what Georg and his friends have to say and it changes him, causing him no little amount of conflict.
Martina Gedeck is also very good as Christa-Maria Sieland, the preeminent actress in East Germany, as much as that would get her in that climate. She is in a relationship with Georg, a famous playwright, and they are a good couple and she is happy. But she has a secret and the secret may threaten her life and the life of her boyfriend.
There are no car chases, no gun fights, little of what we have come to expect in an American spy film. “The Lives of Others” presents a more subtle, cerebral, but no less suspenseful view of what life was really like in East Germany, in the Early 80s. Throughout the film, we get small glimpses of techniques we wholeheartedly believe were actually used in the Cold War. As Wiesler lectures the class, he admonishes them to remember to collect the seat cover, it will provide the dogs with a suspects scent. We then watch as he collects the fabric seat cover from the chair used during the 40 hour interrogation and place it in a labeled glass jar, ready should the suspect ever attempt to escape to the West. These little, more subtle moments are all the more scary because they are more real. Did these things really happen? Probably. If they did, this is a society of fear and suspicion and must have been extremely unpleasant for any and all.
“The Lives of Others” is a very good film providing a peek at what life was really like behind the Iron Curtain.