MOVIECUBE – AUGUST 2013 – ORIGINAL
The first film in this new section and also the first of this month’s is the 2006 German film which won an Oscar for Best Foreign Film, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s The Lives of Others. This wasn’t really an obvious pick because The Lives of Others doesn’t easily fit into the ‘espionage’ category. It is a thriller, yet a very quiet one.
Established in 1949, the German Democratic Republic was ruled by a single party, the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED). Like in other communist nations, the regime insisted on keeping an eye on literally every citizen. The Ministry of State Security (better known as Stasi) employed 100,000 full-time officers, and about 200,000-250,000 civilian informants dubbed Spitzel (grass), some of which worked voluntarily because of political beliefs, some sought personal benefits, some were blackmailed, to spy on 17 million people. Their goal was ‘to know everything’ and they went to great lengths to achieve that.
Stasi officer Captain Gerd Wiesler is a true believer. He hardly has a personal life, his clean, orderly apartment void of anything that betrays his devotion to his work. Stoic and disinterested, he spends his days interrogating people suspected as enemies of the state and giving lectures about it to students. Wiesler’s boss, Anton Grubitz, is one day asked by the Minister of Culture Bruno Hempf to spy on Georg Dreyman, a famous playwright.
Dreyman is everything Wiesler is not. Successful in his field and living with his beautiful lover, theatre actress Christa-Maria Sieland, Dreyman’s life is filled with music, art, culture, and companions. Dreyman’s confident, charming self seems to be in perfect contrast to Wiesler’s stiff posture and emotionless expression. With Dreyman’s apartment fully bugged, Wiesler immerses himself day-in, day-out, in listening to every word spoken inside the apartment. Every day, Wiesler arrives on the dot and puts on his big headphones, meticulously listens to everything and writes detached, objective reports, everything is done by-the-book.
Minister Hempf is determined to find something on Dreyman. Later on Grubitz and Wiesler find out that Hempf’s assignment hardly has anything to do with the state and rather exists because of his lust for Dreyman’s lover Sieland. With Grubitz’s powers, Sieland is hopeless to stop his advances on her, and yet Hempf is not satisfied with their brief encounters in the dark, he wants Dreyman gone for real. When Grubitz learns about this, he is more than happy to help Hempf, not minding whether it is right or wrong, as long as there’s a promotion in the future. This leaves Wiesler, the idealist, to be in a spot. How could those higher-ups, those true believers, misuse their powers?
Director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck actually didn’t set out to make a film about the Stasi. What inspired him in the first place was a quote of Lenin, who after listening to a Beethoven sonata said that he “can’t listen to music too often. It affects your nerves, makes you want to say stupid, nice things, and stroke the heads of people who could create such beauty while living in this vile hell. And now you mustn’t stroke anyone’s head—you might get your hand bitten off. You have to hit them on the head, without any mercy, although our ideal is not to use force against anyone.” Donnersmack then imagined a man with headphones, listening to beautiful music. And music really does play a big part in the film. One of the most important scenes for Wiesler’s character development is when he listens to Dreyman playing a piano piece called ‘Sonata for a Good Man’ (beautifully composed by Gabriel Yared) and, without himself realizing it, is moved to tears.
Watching Wiesler transform from being a detached observer of the life of a couple of these “others” to somehow being a part of them is the core of the film. It’s a fascinating, wonderful thing to watch and the late Ulrich Mühe couldn’t have been better. Having born and lived in East Germany himself, Mühe’s second wife Jenny Gröllmann, along with four of his fellow actors, were actually informants for the Stasi, a fact he discovered after the German reunification (although later the real-life Stasi controller of Gröllmann admitted that a lot of the details in the file were fabricated).
Wiesler starts out trying so hard to find anything at fault with Greyman, and keeps failing to find any. Yet when something really does happen, he tries so hard to hide it. Wiesler might have a change of heart, but does it mean that he has changed? Do the decisions he comes to make in the end betray his belief in the system or merely betray his superiors? Even until the end, it doesn’t seem like Wiesler stops being an idealist. And the audience is also kept guessing at every character’s decisions.
At 138 minutes, the film can seem too long, but I find the pacing excellent for the film. Some people complain that the transformation of Wiesler is too rough and sudden, but I think it could feel so because Wiesler is a man of few words. Compared to Dreyman, he probably has less screen time and definitely less dialogue. The changes happening inside Wiesler is not always shown or said, most of the time they are too subtle you can only feel them.
The bleak colors and lighting by cinematographer Hagen Bogdanski helps build the chilling atmosphere. The modest budget of $2 million might have something to do with it, preventing the film from having grand images, but it really doesn’t need any. It’s a quiet, intelligent film that slowly creeps from your head to your heart.