February 9, 2007

The Lives of Others

Two Good Germans meet at the corner of ethics and empathy in the GDR

By Michelle Orange

In The Lives of Others, writer/director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's wrenching first film, the people of the German Democratic Republic live or die by details. According to records, in 1984, when the film is set, every 50th citizen was a member of or an informer for the Stasi, the East German secret police. Their mandate? "To know everything." Collecting details was not just a matter of national security but a social imperative, and none were too petty to escape concern. The rest of the population spent much of its time and energy trying to keep even the shabbiest of their own details -- and opinions -- from going astray, trusting no one. The film, recently nominated for a best foreign language film Oscar, opens with a chilling interrogation scene, which the interrogator, Captain Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe), later replays as part of a lesson for a class of agents-in-training. Every question, every detail, down to the pose of the subject -- hands under his thighs against the chair, a posture at once childlike and submissive and painful if held for any length of time -- is noted with mechanical precision. When the subject's voice on the tape finally dissolves into a teary confession, Wiesler snaps off the tape with no trace of either satisfaction or distress; class dismissed.

It is Wiesler's transformation from state’s agent to man of agency that sustains the underlying narrative of political intrigue and melodrama, and Ulrich Mühe’s devastating embodiment of the pitiless Wiesler in those early scenes makes it difficult to believe he could pull such a transformation off. When Wiesler attends a performance of a play written by Georg Dreyman, a famous playwright and supposedly loyal party man he has been asked to investigate, his eyes betray a barely perceptible admiration for the passionate lead actress, Christa-Maria (Martina Gedeck), and an equally insidious suspicion for Dreyman, whom he sees nuzzling the actress in the wings. Also in attendance are Wiesler's boss, Lieutenant Colonel Anton Grubitz (Ulrich Tukur) and the lecherous Minister Bruno Hempf. Devious minds thinking somewhat alike, Hempf and Wiesler agree on the idea that a full-scale surveillance of Dreyman is in order (he's too good, too handsome, to be true), and Wiesler is put in charge.

After fully bugging Dreyman's apartment, Wiesler takes up residence in the attic, and slowly his clinical detachment gives way to something unexpected -- something human. Mühe is given the task of playing entire scenes between Dreyman and Christa-Maria with nothing more than his round blue eyes and a giant pair of headphones. He becomes invested in their quarrels, their lovemaking ("presumably have intercourse," is the last entry in one evening's ledger) and eventually begins writing himself into the play. When he discovers that the Minister has bribed Christa-Maria into a lurid affair with threats to her career (there is a truly awful scene in which she capitulates to some putrid limo sex) Wiesler loses faith in his low-brow mission, i.e., clearing Dreyman out of the Minister's way. In his gray nylon Member's Only jacket and matching drab slacks, Mühe is almost viciously thin, and he uses the stark efficiency of his body and his movements to both menacing and vulnerable effect. Though balding and small, he is one of those strangely ageless creatures; among his smooth and tidy features it is his eyes which emerge from the invisibility cloak that was his government-issued identity, glowing with compassion until they burn through it all together.

Von Donnersmarck, who is of East German parentage, spent several years researching the film, and shot it in former GDR locations, including the Stasi headquarters in Normannenstrasse. The streets, the clothes, the buildings, everything has been drained of color -- an entire society meek and uniform down to the very palette of their lives. When Dreyman's playwright friend commits suicide, depleted and hopeless after 10 years of blacklisting for some imagined infraction against his country, Dreyman decides to finally take action, writing an article about the scourge of suicide in his country (the GDR stopped counting them in 1977) and the fate of his friend, a writer who was not allowed to write. Hatching a plan to publish the article in West Germany, Dreyman risks his career, and his life, and Wiesler silently follows suit. The film's final turning point is a little unfortunate in that it hinges, once again, on the timelessly tenuous fidelities of a woman; a member of the Stasi proves himself more loyal to Dreyman than Christa-Maria, his girlfriend, and a price is paid.

There follows a coda, in which the film leaps ahead to 1989 and the fall of the Berlin wall, and then ahead again to 1991, when Dreyman learns that his apartment had been under surveillance all those years ago. He goes to look at his file -- one file among the 33 million pages the German government declassified in 1992 -- and learns the truth about his past, and an agent referred to only in code. Something about these final scenes feels uneasy, as though they might set the rest of the film off balance with a false move or unnecessary play for pathos, but von Donnersmarck proves himself beyond doubt, moving with purpose toward a grace note of quiet benediction.

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