The Lives of Others skillfully captures political absolutism of East Germany in the ‘80s
There is a smoldering sort of brilliance in the way The Lives of Others, winner of the Oscar for Best Foreign Film, mixes intimate drama with social history and politics.
The subject sounds large-scale—life in East Germany, before the Wall came down and while the government’s elaborate domestic spying network (Stasi) was fully in play. But writer-director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck tells that story through a handful of characters, and three in particular—a playwright and an actress who are prominent in East German theater—and the grimly determined Stasi agent who decides to put them under intensive surveillance.
There’s a low-key political thriller lurking in all that, and it’s one in which the suspense is mostly a matter of subtle character changes and slow-brewing moral crises. The threat of violence is often present, but it’s predominantly psychic violence that ensues in this obliquely intriguing tale of state-endorsed intimidation and paranoia.
The tale that unfolds is meandering but nevertheless fascinating. Donnersmarck treats all three main characters with shifting mixtures of cool detachment and cautiously sympathetic insight. This approach leads to our own patient scrutiny of all three, with varying degrees of dread and concern, and that patience gets surprising and ironic rewards in all three cases.
Martina Gedeck is a persuasive blend of glamour and insecurity as the actress, and Sebastian Koch, as the playwright, projects a weary, slightly tattered handsomeness that proves apposite. But the central performance in the film is Ulrich Mühe’s incarnation of the Stasi agent Gerd Wiesler. Mühe’s stoic sensitivity, gradually more evident as the film goes along, looms ultimately as the most haunting and provocative of the film’s social and psychological paradoxes.
Wiesler’s gradual, and small but real, transformation is offset by ironic parallels in several other characters, including an overbearing Culture Minister (Thomas Thieme) and Wiesler’s unctuous Stasi colleague (Ulrich Tukur). In the process, The Lives of Others also becomes a pungent sort of fable about political absolutism poisoning the lives of individuals and whole cultures.