Written & Directed by: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
I grew up during the Cold War, a time when Europe was sharply divided by the Iron Curtain and the idea of the Berlin Wall coming down was merely fodder for insane predictions touted by tabloids. Then the year after I graduated from college, European communism began to dissolve, and the Berlin Wall was leveled to the ground. Suddenly we found ourselves living in a drastically changed world.
The Lives of Others is a beautiful German film that explores life under East Germany’s communist regime.
The story opens in 1984. Secret Service Agent Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe) is a ruthless interrogator, ambitious and singlemindedly devoted to ferreting out “enemies of socialism.” For him, human nature is viewed through a very narrow lens, with no room for ambiguity.
Playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) has remained in the good graces of the East German government, enabling him to continue the work he loves at a time when many writers, directors, and other artists are being blacklisted. His lover, Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck) is a successful actress. Christa-Maria catches the eye of a corrupt government official who exploits her for sexual favors. He makes sure Georg is placed under rigorous surveillance, seeking a reason to arrest him. Secret Service Agent Wiesler is assigned to the case.
Georg’s life is — in many ways — a rich and passionate one. He is surrounded by books and friends and devoted to his lover, Christa-Marie. He believes in the ability of humans to change for the better and in the redeeming power of art.
As Weisler becomes a voyeur in Georg’s world, we get glimpses of Weisler’s hollow, lonely existence. He becomes intrigued by Georg and increasingly absorbed in the playwright’s life. Meanwhile, a tragic event prods Georg to find a way to stand up to the autocratic government, putting him and Christa-Marie on dangerous ground.
This is partly a political thriller, with well-paced, tightening suspense, and partly a drama. It is also a rich, fascinating character study of Weisler. Ulrich Mühe is amazing — he plays the role of a man carefully trained to keep his face impassive, revealing nothing, yet he portrays a rich array of emotions with tremendous subtlety.
The Lives of Others is a beautifully acted, exceptional film. A moment of silence, in this movie, speaks volumes. It offers a glimpse at the ways — large and small — that people take a stand against an autocratic regime, at great personal risk. It also shows how individuals find a way, in ruthless circumstances, to assert their humanity. I found it exceptionally moving and powerful, as well as a revealing look at an important part of history.