Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's The Lives of Others, now available on DVD, is the best feature film debut by a director since Orson Welles's Citizen Kane. Coming it seemed out of nowhere and defying all the conventional wisdom of the motion picture industry, Donnersmarck achieved a remarkable commercial and critical success with his first full-length film, culminating when it won the Oscar for Best Foreign Picture of 2006.
The Lives of Others fully deserves all the awards it garnered. Evidently a perfectionist, Donnersmarck created a film that is near perfect in every respect. It deals seriously and profoundly with an important but sadly neglected subject—communist tyranny in East Germany—and the screenplay Donnersmarck carefully crafted over several years does full justice to his central theme of injustice. Contractually in full control of the production, Donnersmarck worried endlessly over the details and got them all right—historically and aesthetically. With creative costuming, location scouting, and artistic design, his production team captured the look and feel of the DDR (the German Democratic Republic) in the 1980s, above all in the predominantly grey color scheme of the film that subliminally establishes how drab and bleak life was under communist rule in the East. The musical score similarly contributes to the atmospheric quality of the film. The composer Gabriel Yared does not go in for grand and obvious musical effects, but he is operatic in one respect: by subtly employing Wagnerian leitmotifs, he underlines crucial moments in the drama and helps to structure it.
Above all, for a low-budget production, The Lives of Others is extravagantly cast (impressed by Donnersmarck's screenplay, the actors and actresses worked for a fraction of their normal fees). The leading roles are all filled to perfection, and Donnersmarck pestered major German-speaking performers to play the minor roles, with the result that some of the actors turn in impressive performances without even having any lines to speak. What really ensures that The Lives of Others will be remembered as a great motion picture is the gripping performance by Ulrich Mühe as its central character, Gerd Wiesler, a captain in the East German secret police, the infamous Stasi. Working through understatement and a chilling economy and precision of gesture, Mühe simply nails his role as a cold-blooded interrogator and surveillance expert. In the way he manages to convey the spiritual emptiness and quiet desperation of his character, Mühe invites comparison with Gene Hackman in Coppola's The Conversation (another film about spying, one that Donnersmarck seems to have in mind and even perhaps to echo consciously toward the end of his movie, in a scene of debugging an apartment). Having been a star of East German theater and having suffered under Stasi surveillance himself, Mühe seemed poised for international stardom as a result of his portrayal of Wiesler, but, alas, he died of stomach cancer in July of 2007. At least before he died, he got to play the role of a lifetime.
There is a great deal that is dark about The Lives of Others, both in its background and in the film itself, but lest I give the impression that it is some ponderous German art film, to be suffered through, not enjoyed, I hasten to add that on one level it is a spy thriller, with enough twists and turns to keep audiences on the edge of their seats. And although the film is deeply depressing in what it shows about totalitarianism, it also is uplifting in what it shows about the human capacity to resist and even triumph over the most tyrannical system. After all, the film ultimately chronicles the fall of the DDR and its most hated symbol, the Berlin Wall. Donnersmarck balances the many despicable characters in his story with many likeable ones, and the film even has its comic moments, including the funniest Erich Honecker joke I've ever heard. Although by Hollywood standards The Lives of Others is pitifully lacking in big-budget special effects—not a single car chase!—it has enough action and romance elements to work as entertainment.
In fact, in its combination of cinematic artistry, intellectual depth, and sheer entertainment value, The Lives of Others reminds me of the best work of Fritz Lang and Alfred Hitchcock. Donnersmarck has learned from Lang and Hitchcock the way that watching a movie is like spying on people, and he repeatedly plays with the parallels between the director's camera and the various espionage devices employed by the Stasi—building up vertiginous layers of complexity, as we the audience spy on people who are spying on people, and even spy on people who are spying on people who are spying on people. From Hitchcock, Donnersmarck takes the idea that spying easily passes over into voyeurism, and he draws deeply upon Lang's prophetic vision of a panoptical totalitarian order that spies into every corner of private life. Donnersmarck's Wiesler is Lang's supervillain Dr. Mabuse reduced to a petty functionary in a bureaucratic state—and is all the more frightening as a result of his ordinariness.
If you did not see The Lives of Others in a movie theater, by all means view it on DVD, and even if you did catch it at the theater, you now have a chance to study it and deepen your appreciation of its artistry. The movie works well on a television screen. Many of the shots seem carefully composed and framed to suggest the way people became trapped in and by the East German regime. Indeed, the reductive nature of the television image works to reinforce this sense of human diminishment under totalitarianism. The DVD has many special features, including a documentary about the making of the movie and several deleted scenes. (As often happens, the movie is actually better off without the deleted scenes, but it is still interesting to see them.) In his commentary accompanying the film, Donnersmarck comes across as charming and boyishly enthusiastic, and we can see how he talked so many famous people into participating in it. Unfortunately, he seems to be ad-libbing his comments, and they are not well synchronized with what is appearing on the screen. He repeatedly goes off on tangents and often ends up failing to say anything about some of the most extraordinary moments in the film. Still, overall his commentary is extremely informative and helped me to understand and appreciate the film better. Clearly Donnersmarck knew what he was doing in every scene, and he does not hesitate to explain what he had in mind.
In particular, Donnersmarck clarified for me the central sequence in the film, in which Wiesler learns to sympathize with the victims of his spying and turns into their protector. Wiesler has been assigned to bug the apartment of a prominent East German playwright, Georg Dreyman, and to monitor his activities with a leading actress, Christa-Maria Sieland, who is also Dreyman's lover. Donnersmarck contrasts the vitality and creativity of the playwright and the actress with the sterility of Wiesler, who creates nothing in his own life and can merely record the lives of others. At various points, we see Dreyman working at a typewriter, calling up words that can move audiences and perhaps alter the course of history. Donnersmarck counterpoints these moments with scenes of Wiesler sitting above Dreyman's apartment in his lonely observation post, also at a typewriter but merely taking down what amounts to dictation. Several scenes in Wiesler's starkly furnished apartment establish how devoid his own life is of any emotional content, but he gradually changes as a result of what he observes in Dreyman's home.
One day Wiesler enters the playwright's apartment and walks off with a volume of Bertolt Brecht's lyric poetry that he overheard being discussed by Dreyman and a director friend. We see and hear Wiesler reading a Brecht poem, presumably for the first time in his life. Then, through his spy's headphones, he overhears Dreyman playing a piano sonata, and the music actually brings tears to Wiesler's eyes. Returning to his apartment building, he undergoes a kind of low-key conversion. He meets a little boy in the elevator, who inadvertently reveals that his father despises the Stasi. Ready as always to pounce and condemn any dissident to the authorities, Wiesler pulls back at the last moment. Rather than asking for the name of the boy's father, he asks—rather comically—for the name of his soccer ball.
From this point on, Wiesler increasingly works to protect Dreyman and his friends, falsely reporting their conversations to his superiors and providing cover for their subversive activities. When Dreyman begins writing an article for a West German magazine exposing the scandalous rate of suicide in East Germany, Wiesler backs up the dramatist's cover story about working on a politically correct play about Lenin—to the point of actually manufacturing details about the non-existent play in his daily reports. As Donnersmarck explains in his commentary, "suddenly this incredibly uncreative person is forced into creativity." The moment would be comic if the context were not so tragic, and Donnersmarck wisely decided not to provide too many details about the Lenin play Wiesler concocts. With his typical economy, Donnersmarck gives us just enough to make his point, and it is a point deeply rooted in the German humanistic tradition, the tradition of Goethe and Thomas Mann. In the conversion of Wiesler, The Lives of Others ultimately teaches a lesson about the humanizing power of art, perhaps even art's power to save a person's humanity in the midst of the most dehumanizing of regimes.
Donnersmarck develops a powerful image of the parasitism of the communist regime in East Germany. Everything that is valuable in this world, all that is vibrant and creative, all the emotional warmth and depth, is to be found in the lives of Dreyman and his artistic friends. The communist state can only sit back and passively observe all this—the lives of others. False to the core, the party officials feed like vampires on the life blood of the people under their rule. They exploit Dreyman's art for propaganda purposes, while one particularly thuggish minister uses Sieland's body for his sexual pleasure, and another thinks only of advancing his career by exposing Dreyman as a threat to state security. Donnersmarck pulls no punches in his relentless indictment of communist tyranny. The film builds up to a terrifying sequence in which we see how morally corrupting the East German regime was, and how far decent people were willing to go in betraying their friends in order to save their own lives and livelihoods. But if The Lives of Others is a story of damnation under communist tyranny, it also chronicles Wiesler's redemption under the inspiring force of great art. Like everything else in his life, Wiesler's redemption turns out to be subdued, and it barely registers on Mühe's great stone face, although in this most superb of performances, it is there to be seen. But I have already given away too many details of a brilliant plot, and I refuse to spoil the film further for first-time viewers. Suffice it to say that in a film that one critic said sets a record for false endings, every last one of them rings true.
Paul Cantor is Clifton Waller Barrett Professor of English at the University of Virginia. Among his many books is Gilligan Unbound: Pop Culture in the Age of Globalization (Rowman & Littlefield).
Copyright © 2008 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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