dir: Florian Henckel Von Donnensmarck
[img_assist|nid=803|title=Check out my huge East German communist headphones!|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=300|height=375]
If you’re looking for a fast-paced, thrill-packed, Cold War-era action fest, then do I have a film for you.
This flick will, if excitement was what you were after, put you to sleep quicker than dipping your head in a bucket of chloroform.
It is a meticulously crafted, exquisitely paced and rendered story about the banality of the institutions of totalitarianism, and the impersonal, mechanical manner in which they crush the life out of people.
The deliberate mistake many commentators made last year when the flick rose to prominence, and especially after its Oscar win for Best Foreigner Film, was to pretend the flick was only one thing: a condemnation of communism. It takes a great degree of wilful blindness to go only so far in seeing what the flick’s themes are and the extent to which they are elaborated upon.
Wiesler (Ulrich Muhe) is a loyal captain in the Stasi, the East German secret police. Not only is he very good at his job, which is finding people's weak spots and breaking them, but he also believes the dogma of the Socialist paradise he clearly doesn’t live in. The story is set in 1984, when the place is still called the GDR (German Democratic Republic), and none of these protagonists have any idea that a muscle-bound, bandana-wearing Ronald Reagan would be single-handedly tearing down the Berlin Wall in five year’s time.
No, all they have to look forward to is continuing to live under an inhuman regime in which even thinking negative thoughts about the socialist wonderland and its handmaidens is a punishable offence.
Wiesler is tasked with examining the life of a celebrated playwright for any indications that he has any anti-establishment leanings. Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) seems to be doing fine, everybody loves him, and he never says or does anything political. His girlfriend Christa (Martina Gedeck) is a much loved actress, and she, too, seems apolitical. They both realise they live in a horrible totalitarian state that has destroyed the lives of many people around them, but they’re content with surviving and getting by.
When Wiesler brings his Stasi spook squad in, they wire up Dreyman’s apartment for sound, with bugs in every room of his place. Even the bathroom, for those vital farting sounds that needs must be recorded. Wiesler then spends most of the flick listening to everything that happens, including Georg and Christa’s vigorous sex life, from the safety of the attic. The purpose is to catch him saying something or planning something which criticises the state, thus ensuring he can be dragged away and ‘disappeared’ in the middle of the day without anyone so much as raising an eyebrow.
Even raising an eyebrow would get you in trouble. That’s the convincingly oppressive atmosphere the flick transpires in. It is so oppressive and almost arbitrary that it would be comical in different circumstances. The mixture of Orwellian nightmare and Kafkaesque wet dream would be a Monty Python sketch if this wasn’t a chilling representation of that hateful, faceless, anti-human regime.
Because Wiesler is absolutely loyal to the regime, it doesn’t cause him any cognitive dissonance at first when he finds out that the real reason Dreyman is being targeted is because a senior bureaucrat wants him out of the way so he can fuck the guy’s girlfriend at his leisure and in the privacy of his limousine. Wiesler is, after all, a soulless jerk who lives only for and through his work.
But something happens during his surveillance of the artists: he falls in love not only with them but with their lives. Twenty years of being a loyal automaton servant of the state has dampened down his spirit, but the meagre embers of his soul flare up whilst listening to the minutiae of their daily existence.
He also listens to a piece of music for piano, called “Sonata for a Good Man”, as played by Dreyman, which seems to affect him deeply. This and other elements compel him to take a course of action which his masters would probably not approve of, but with a reawakened soul comes a reawakened conscience, and he can’t silence the voice inside any longer.
Perhaps it would have been better if he had managed to find a way to silence the voice in his head, much like the wonders of modern pharmacology keep the legion of howling voices in my head down to a dull roar. This is, after all, a horrible regime where the old adage of who watches the watchers is best realised: because everyone is watching everyone else.
The GDR had an almost perfect system in place to maintain its vice-like grip on the hearts and minds of its citizenry: for every member of the secret police (around 100,000 full time employees at its peak), there were about three informers. So you have the watchers watching not only the other watchers, but the watched watching others at the same time. Using sometimes subtle and sometimes brutally effective coercion, anyone at any time could be working for the Stasi, and, being on their radar, felt that they could disappear into prison at a moment’s notice.
Imagine living in a world where all your communications can be monitored for no good reason, where you can be ‘disappeared’ into custody and held indefinitely with no proof of wrongdoing, where the law no longer applies to you because someone, somewhere decided you were a threat to national security.
Thank the gods the Berlin Wall came down, because it would really suck for such a situation to ever arise again in one of the enlightened democracies that we all live in. Oh, what a joy it is to live in such democratic wonderlands. Let’s all bake a great big democracy cake to celebrate our good fortune!
For me, the real strengths of the film are in the dramatic elements, but it’s not just a history lesson. Regimes like this did exist, and they were even nastier that what is depicted here, but they still exist and will always arise again because ‘good’ men and women go along with the program because of their own selfish needs.
Sometimes it’s out of genuine fear, but ultimately it requires the collaboration of at least hundreds of thousands of people who use the apparatus of state to constrain the threat that people represent to the interests of the State, whether real or imagined.
No-one is clean in these regimes, even our heroes here are dirty as dirty can be. But we care about at least three of the characters here, and hope that they aren’t going to come to a sticky end, because we know that they still have enough of a soul to want to aspire to do the ‘right’ thing by people, even when the right thing isn’t always obvious.
Wiesler goes from being a dispassionate observer, to voyeur, to active collaborator over the course of the flick, and whilst we’re never given a clear reason as to why these people provoked a change of heart, since twenty years of Stasi work would have seen him destroy many, many a person’s life, we wish him well. Within even realising it, especially since it’s not edited or put together as a thriller, and lacks entirely the action trappings of something like the Bourne movies, the plot builds to an almost agonising climax as we wonder whether the ‘good’ men of the sonata’s title will survive or be destroyed.
As an added element of poignancy, Ulrich Muhe the man responsible for the central performance in this flick, who can draw you in just from a scene where he sits there listening to something on a pair of headphones, died of cancer just recently. On top of that, it comes out that he himself lived in the GDR, and was spied upon by the Stasi for decades. On top of that, it’s subsequently been revealed that his own wife spied on him for the Stasi, which he knew but denied to the very end, even to the point of suing a publisher for publishing these scurrilous truths.
Such a combination of elements, incorporating all of the other experiences of the people who produced and made this flick, have raised a story that is entirely fictional to the status of a work of art encapsulating universal themes of humanity and specific historical resonances of a dark time in history.
This is the part of the review where I have to make some at least token objections to the cavalcade of superlatives. Viewers shouldn’t forget that it is fiction. There is a hint of unreality even amidst the copious amounts of details they seem to get right (after all, how the hell would I know, I wasn’t in the Stasi: I was knocked back because of my flat feet, curse these fallen arches!) It is unlikely that a Wiesler would have been able to get away with most of the stuff that he does, because he would have been monitored the whole time himself.
And the evil bureaucrat who wants Dreyman out of the way wouldn’t have required the evidence he claimed to want, since the grounds for accusation and incarceration were already there. As is established early on, getting an informer to say anything about the actions of another were considered adequate grounds for snatching someone and squirreling them away for however long the glorious state desired. Also, where Wiesler ends up isn’t plausible either: the penalties for Stasi officers stuffing up were even harsher than for the regular poor comrades who came to their notice.
Still, the ‘punishment’ results in one of my favourite scenes towards the end of the film, where two lowly Stasi officers are working deep in the bowels of a government building steaming people’s mail open. One of the letter openers is, I’m pretty sure, a guy who played a minor role much earlier in the film, as a hapless young officer in a cafeteria who stupidly makes a joke mildly insulting the fearless leader at the time, Erich Honecker. A superior berates him for it and tells him his life is essentially over for making that joke. He then says the equivalent of “only kidding.”
But we see from that celebratory moment amidst the letter openers at the end that he wasn’t joking at all.
It’s a tremendous film, terrifically well made and acted, with themes and warnings that far exceed the history lesson it seems to be. As long as the powerful want to maintain their power over the rest of us, which is always, there’s always going to be that tension between the amount of power they’re willing to exert over us, and the amount of shit we’re willing to take from them, at the cost of our souls. There should always be, The Lives of Others argues, a point at which we say ‘enough’, and take personal responsibility for our complicity with the system.
9 times that scene with the East German prostitute works because she’s played by a woman you’d imagine was an East German prostitute out of 10.
“People don’t change” – Das Leben der Anderen