The Lives of Others (2006)

Dir. Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. Starring Sebastian Koch, Ulrich Muhe, Martina Gedeck

Von Donnersmarck and his DP for this film, Hagen Bogdanski, make an interesting choice early in the film. During a conversation between the playwright Dreyman (Koch) and his lover, the actress Christa-Maria Sieland (Gedeck), the camera takes Sieland’s flirty smile and stays with it; she looks directly into the camera, flits her eyes up, and then looks down again. (She wears more eyeshadow in this scene than any other in the film; it’s not a mistake that her eyes are being highlighted here.) The shot switches back to Dreyman, who the filmmakers don’t play the same game with. He is looking at Sieland, and thus away from the camera. She is at 12 o’clock, he at 5, and so we see him in a similarly handsome sort of profile. Back to Sieland. Full focus on her face, and her eyes meet the camera’s eyes in what is, in virtually any film, the most unsettling type of shot. It is the first night that, upstairs, in an almost bucolic attic above Dreyman’s East German apartment, which is decorated in the Brutalist IKEA chic that is used to convince an audience of the film’s authenticity, a senior Stasi agent sits with his headphones on, listening in on the conversation below. His name is Wiesler (Muhe). It was not his idea, precisely, to eavesdrop on Dreyman in order to test his loyalty to the GDR; politicians want that, for other reasons. He seems not to have any particular feelings about the GDR. He is merely efficient in the way that lizards are efficient, and, incidentally, alone in the way that lizards are alone. Despite himself, he finds himself wrapped up in Dreyman’s life. Dreyman is not Solzhenitsyn, whose work sits in his house alongside Brecht and copies of Der Spiegel; he is principled in his own small way, but he’s no loudmouth. It takes a shock to his personal life to push him to push back against the East German government, and even then it’s anonymous. Yet to succeed, he needs complicity from upstairs, complicity that he doesn’t even know he needs; that’s where Wiesler comes in. Perhaps, like us when we see Sieland in that early scene, he looks his subjects full on in the face while he listens to their lives for hours on end. Certainly he is unsettled by the effect.

When I was in college, I got into writing murder mystery parties. At the height of our extravagance, there were something like thirty roles that I had to write, each with their complete bios and a list of primary and secondary motivations. Most of the writing time, in retrospect, was spent working out how characters would connect and interact with each other; who was going to be important to who? And, more importantly, who was going to have the drop on which other people? Creating counters and consequences – expose this person and you may set off a chain reaction that exposes you two steps down the line – was the tricky part. Powerful characters create something like a murder mystery Concert of Europe. This is what The Lives of Others reminded me of, even though it’s hard to imagine two more different moods. Murder mysteries are purposefully kitschy; The Lives of Others has a hospital atmosphere, as gray and deadening as the waiting room outside surgery. In the film, each character seems to have the drop on at least one other person. Wiesler, with his rank and his experience, is the most obvious foil to any civilian, from Dreyman to Sieland to the flamboyant academic Hausner, who is more dramatic than the playwright and far more vocal in protesting the government. Yet Wiesler is vulnerable to his former classmate, Grubitz (Ulrich Tukur), the slimy bureaucrat who plays dumb but proves himself to be quite otherwise. Grubitz is vulnerable compared to the Minister of Culture, Hempf (Thomas Thieme). Yet Hempf’s weakness is Sieland – he is raping her on the side, and desirous of Sieland, he pushes Grubitz to begin surveillance on Dreyman. Grubitz sees through Hempf and believes there is a way to unseat the minister, potentially opening up the job for himself; toppling both Hempf and Dreyman would be the stroke to further his career. And it is Dreyman who is massively vulnerable on all sides, more than anyone else. He has no one to trust. Yet he is the one who can do the most damage to the Party, to the State. Each character has a sword attached to a horsehair above their heads; each character’s sword is sharpened differently, and each horsehair is of a different thickness. There’s great mastery throughout the movie, but one has a hard time identifying it as “the script” or “the cinematography” or “the acting” when it’s the premise itself, with all of its implicit danger to all parties, that informs the best of the film. It builds suspense not with music or a car chase or with a moving camera but with the many possibilities that branch off from one another, which occasionally flash like the signals on Wiesler’s surveillance equipment, but which, like those signals, can be unobtrusive for some time.

The film is interested in the passage of time; months are painstakingly sketched out, but years sometimes disappear with three words of text onscreen. The film begins in 1984 but ends ten years later. Long stretches of the film are very quiet, which is interesting for a movie that is all about listening in on others; the viewer has to really work with the film visually, which is again ironic. Characters enter Dreyman’s building without realizing that someone is next to the door, in the shadows, watching them go upstairs. Splashes of color – the green of a typewriter, the yellow of a volume of Brecht, the red of some unusual ink with surprising importance to the plot – break through the yellows and browns and grays that otherwise fill the movie. It was never sunny in East Germany; there was always some cloud cover. The most light that one can hope for is indoors, and the brightest lights, which might otherwise be a blessing for the light-starved people of East Berlin, are saved for interrogations. They are more obviously important in a film like this than they would be elsewhere. There is such restraint in The Lives of Others, restraint that is mirrored in Wiesler especially, but somewhat in Dreyman and Grubitz as well. No one says, or even implies, that Wiesler begins to model his life after Dreyman once he begins to spend his waking hours with him. We simply see Wiesler indulging in sex in the only way he knows how (but without the cuddling that he knows goes on in Dreyman’s bed), or reading from Dreyman’s copy of Brecht (much to Dreyman’s consternation), or, once Wiesler has made his choice to cover up for the writer, writing a months-long fiction of Dreyman’s actions. Sieland’s given name, Christa-Maria, is not one of those restrained elements of the film. There is no doubt that the movie’s only female character of any substance was born to be madonna and martyr, etched into a role that makes her pitiable as no one else in the film is pitiable, but stuck in a way that no one else in the film is stuck. In The Lives of Others murder mystery party, Sieland is like one of the weapons for people to find as opposed to a real person; she is a point of interest or a tool more than she is someone who could change the course of the plot. It’s one of the film’s few disappointments that Sieland is a weak link surrounded by the hardness or the flexible nobility of men. No one else needs drugs, no one else must be kept ignorant of important secrets, no one else is a Judas.

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