The Lives of Others

1984. Germany comprises the western BRD and the eastern DDR. Families, railways, ideas – all have been cut in two.

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.

Martina Gedeck as the actress Christa-Maria Sieland and Sebastian Koch as Georg Dreyman.

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.

Published by Ian Hocking

Writer and psychologist.

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  1. I saw this film recently and found it absorbing and moving. (see Petrona, somewhere). At risk of a spoiler and being wrong (because my memory is hopeless), I did not think it was the music alone that caused the conversion, but the combination of that with the death of the character — wasn’t that death (and the manner of it) the tipping point for action?

    Thanks for the literal translation of the title — that makes much more sense, and is much more poetic, too. We editors appreciate the enormous difference one little word can make, even if we don’t always read German!

  2. Eric, excellent. You’re won’t be disappointed!

    Maxine, my memory of the film is fading a bit (I wrote this review early last week) – but didn’t The Death happen quite towards the end of the film? I thought his conversion had already come by that point. Still, I didn’t think it was a major problem anyway.

  3. I also enjoyed this film, though found it marred by a certain heavy-handed sentimentality. The contrast of opposites – lush vs. bare and sterile flat, tender lovemaking vs. prostitute, for example – was a bit too stereotyped as well. Interesting aside: it was viewed as a class project by my son, who attends school in the former Stasi realm (Dresden).

    Ian, you’re correct about the translation of the title. The life/lives of others (no ‘the’) would normally read: das Leben anderer/von anderen.

  4. Thanks for your comment, John. Down this way – in Exeter – the options for seeing good foreign films are limited, so I try to see them as they turn up.

    Lee, there was a certain heavy-handedness to it, definitely. Interesting that your son saw it at school. The question that everyone seems to ask themselves is ‘Where are these people now?’

  5. Ian, I’ve just this moment received the programme for my daughter’s class trip to Berlin from a school near Bonn/Cologne to discover that one whole day will be devoted to the NS and Stasi past, including visits to the former Stasi prison and to the Stasi museum. I’ll ask my daughter if they discuss the question of where these people are now.

  6. Wow, I’m very jealous, Lee! I’d be interested to read on your blog what she found out.

  7. OK, maybe I’ll get her to do a guest post. She’s 16 and very politically and historically inclined (much more so than her ignorant mum). After the first week in June, then.

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