Written and Directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
Starring Ulrich Mühe, Martina Gedeck, Sebastian Koch, Ulrich Tukur
For those who believe dabbling in socialism would be a good thing, try watching The Lives of Others. Goodness knows, if we ever are blessed with a completely socialist government, we might all have the horror of experiencing this story firsthand.
The story starts out in East Germany, 1984. A lead instructor and investigator for the Stasi in Germany, Gerd Wiesler (Mühe), creates an assignment for himself. His former classmate and now superior Grubitz (Tukur) grants him the tools and the manpower.
The job is covering prolific and seemingly loyal playwright Georg Dreyman (Koch). His instinct is that his association with other artists has made him susceptible to betraying the country. His instincts are good. Under his watch, he begins to see something develop. He also begins to develop a conscience.
The Lives of Others won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language film. It probably deserved to win much more. As the spy and investigator HGW XX/7, Mühe is cool, humorless and efficient. He has the blank stare of a serial killer going about his work. The experience of watching feelings arrive behind those formerly soulless eyes is astounding. It’s hard to recall if I have seen a more touching performance than his move from beaurocrat to human. His performance alone is enough to make the film a classic.
The reason for this performance is perhaps because the actor lived through the exact experience of the artists portrayed in the film. It was a lucky coincidence that writer and director von Donnersmarck discovered him to be a Stasi hero in this harshly realistic horror fantasy.
The horror is from the scenes of paranoia and rampant government abuse on its people near the end of the Cold War. The fantasy part comes from the idea that a Stasi Captain could ever be the hero. There wasn’t one for Mühe. This much is certain.
Koch’s writer Georg is a passionate and ultimately good man. His conscience is burgeoning with the understanding of what his actress girlfriend Christa-Maria (Gedeck) is going through at the hands of some of the very men in charge of HGW XX/7. Once another friend, blacklisted for 7 years commits suicide, something changes.
Koch plays Georg completely straight, open and forgiving. It’s an incredibly deep role that only deepens as the story moves through to its conclusion.
As the good, but compromised girlfriend, Gedeck is equally effective. The relationship they share is instilled with a goodness rarely displayed on film. It is not brought to crisis easily. They think things through, even if they have no idea of the extent their lives are being monitored or controlled.
The plot is as intriguing as I can remember, but this may well be due to the performance all around. It feels so real because its characters, both kind and atrocious, are not as much acted as lived.
Which brings me back to my original statement. One of the gifts of artwork is the chance to show instead of just tell. Through Georg, Chirsta-Maria, Georg, Anton and more we are gifted the chance to experience the horror of living under the thumb of a cruel system and even more cruel masters. It becomes obvious that it could only ever fail for a want of inspired people. The only desire is to not get caught, even telling a joke about the leader.
Writer Director von Donnersmarck said this story was based upon a quote from the founder of his old country, Lenin. When listening to his favorite piece of music, Lenin told his comrade Maxim Gorky, with no hint of a smile:
But I can’t listen to music often, it affects my nerves, it makes me want to say sweet nothings and pat the heads of people who, living in a filthy hell, can create such beauty. But today we mustn’t pat anyone on the head or we’ll get our hand bitten off; we’ve got to hit them on the heads, hit them without mercy, though in the ideal we are against doing any violence to people. Hm-hm—it’s a hellishly difficult office!
From this, the story poured out of the young filmmaker.
I had wanted to watch this a decade ago, when my dental assistant discussed it while she worked on my teeth. My desire was cut short when I went through The Tourist, one of the few films I have ever rated at 0 stars. Time moved on, and luckily I forgot the connection and remembered Connie’s recommendation.
This is one of the better films of the last 20 years. It only took me 14 years to see it.
(***** out of *****)