The DDR has been Russified. Its population is monitored by the Orwellian-sounding Ministry for State Security (or Stasi, from the German for ‘state security’, STAatsSIicherheit). At its Berlin headquarters, the Stasi keeps files on all individuals and organisations suspected of anti-DDR activity. The motto of the Stasi is ‘Shield and Sword of the Party’ – and so its officers are both passive in their absorption of information and active in their destruction of lives connected (perhaps only by rumour) to subversion.
The story of The Lives of Others can be summarised in few words. Gerd Wiesler is an underachieving, isolated Stasi officer. He is assigned to monitor the activities of a playwright called Georg Dreyman, who is suspected of subversion and contact with the GDR. Wiesler begins his surveillance with gusto, and the expertise with which his team install their apparatus – behind electric sockets, in telephones – speaks to the frightening efficiency of a police state. These Stasi officers are people too – they love their work.
Ulrich Mühe as Herr Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler
As the surveillance continues, Wiesler becomes infected by the goodness and purity of Dreyman, the writer. Dreyman is a firm friend to those in his coterie damaged by the state’s capricious attitude to art. He is a forgiving and faithful husband. And, when he sits down to play a sonata, Wiesler is listening from his bird’s nest in the attic; the music acts as a form of unification. Wiesler rediscovers his humanity.
The film has been titled ‘The Lives of Others’ by its English-languages distributors, but ‘Das Leben der Anderen’ literally means ‘The Lives of the Others’. This distinction is interesting because the film is concerned more with the clash of groups – i.e. ideologies – than intra-group conflicts. It focuses on the dualities created by imposed structures: informers versus those who refuse snitch; capitalism versus the DDR’s flavour of socialism; duty to art versus the state; humanity versus inhumanity.
The film is not without its difficulties. Wiesler’s conversion is, frankly, unbelievable in the context of his life. Is this the first time he has heard a good piece of music? Why should the writer’s performance push him to betray his state? How can Wiesler get away with nobbling an investigation when he works in organisation for which individuality is systematically subsumed in layers of checks, balances and betrayals?
Ulrich Tukur as Hauptmann Wiesler’s boss, Oberstleutnant Anton Grubitz
But you can’t go far wrong with a beautifully-shot character piece whose themes find reflection in many levels of story – the unification of opposites, the deliberations of betrayal and the betrayed. Plus, the director is an Oxford-educated aristrocrat called Count Florian Maria Georg Christian Henckel von Donnersmarck, which is entertaining in itself.