The year is 1984 in East Germany and Stasi officer Gerd Wiesler is listening through his big headphone in an abandoned attic. He is listening to the daily conversation of the famous, but seemingly suspicious, playwright Georg Dreyman and his actress girlfriend Christa-Maria Sieland. As the operation goes by, Wiesler begins to take a special interest on them. He prevents danger from happening, he helps rekindle their relationship and at the end he save the one he needs to spy upon. What changed?
At a glance The Lives of Others looks like another history movie. It focuses on East Germany and the rising power of socialism. Albeit the stereotype, the first feature of director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck is different. The history provides the script but it isn’t the focal point. Instead, Donnersmarck concentrates on the people in the history and their psychological states of mind. Wiesler is a man who teaches interrogation class 101 (don’t allow them to sleep; forced them to sit on their hands during interrogation). He believes in the idea of totalitarianism and what it stands for. He believes he is doing the right thing for something better. He lives alone, isolated and don’t really socialize much. His idea of having fun is probably playing Big Brother like the creepy children in Orwell’s 1984.
Where else Dreyman and Christa-Maria are the complete opposite. They are artist who love freedom and wish to express themselves, yet they are trapped. The despair of these two is what makes the movie interesting to watch. Take this scene for example, where Dreyman pleads Christa-Maria not to meet the corrupt Minister of Culture. “You are a great artist. You don’t need him. Stay here. Don’t go to him,” … “No? I don’t need him? Don’t I need this whole system? What about you? You get in bed with them, too. Why do you do it? Because they can destroy you too, despite your talent and your faith. Because they decide what we play, who is to act, and who can direct.”
The claustrophobic setting also added tension to the movie. The lights are always dim or blur like a faded paint in an old house. Where else the background score is like a ray of hope on the difficult situation. Worth to note: the movie received critical acclaimed for its historical accuracy for using correct equipment that were used by real Stasi officers to spied on their citizens.
It will devastate anyone to learned that German actor Ulrich Mühe who played Wiesler died of cancer a year after the movie released. His portrayal as Wiesler is truly memorable: his quiet persona and confident charisma at the beginning gradually changed before your eyes when we see his real human emotion for the two strangers. Sebastian Koch and Martina Gedeck‘s character are the perfect companion to Mühe’s stellar performance.
The Lives of Others (or Das Leben der Anderen) can be seen as a gripping movie that exploits the idea of socialism and its psychological impact. But, it can also be see as how human compassion triumphs even in the most heinous situation.