The humanity within

The Lives of Others

Sebastian Koch and Voltmar Kleinelt wait for the wall to fall.

Sebastian Koch and Voltmar Kleinelt wait for the wall to fall.

Rated 4.0

At Sunday’s Academy Awards ceremony, the Spanish-Mexican movie Pan’s Labyrinth started out winning so many awards that it looked like a shoo-in for the foreign-language Oscar as well. But surprise, surprise: The little gold trophy went instead to German writer-director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck for The Lives of Others. So let’s hear it for the Academy: They got this one right.

The Lives of Others takes place in the mid-1980s during the waning days of the German Democratic Republic, the oppressive East German satellite of the Soviet Union. That is, we know in hindsight that these are the waning days; to the characters in von Donnersmarck’s incisive script, they seem anything but. The GDR is as robust and oppressive as ever, and the Berlin Wall looks like a good bet to stand for a thousand years, enforced by State Security (“Stasi”), the snoop-everywhere, know-everything secret police.

We see Stasi in action right off, in the person of Capt. Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe), a coldly efficient interrogator. The minions of Stasi are nothing if not thorough in their interrogations. They make the suspect sit on his hands so that his palms will sweat into the seat of the chair; later the seat cover is carefully removed so that, just in case the victim escapes and makes a run for it, they’ll have a scent to give the bloodhounds.

Wiesler’s latest assignment is to check up on Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch), a popular playwright whose party loyalty has never been questioned. But the Stasi mindset is such that Dreyman’s very loyalty makes him suspicious: This guy must be hiding something. Wiesler and his crew enter the apartment Dreyman shares with his lead actress Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck) and plant a battery of surveillance microphones. (They don’t even have to be sneaky about it; Stasi is so feared that Wiesler knows the neighbors won’t dare warn Dreyman they’ve been around.) Then Wiesler ensconces himself in a nearby house with his listening apparatus, waiting patiently for Dreyman to give himself away.

But a couple of unexpected things happen. First, Wiesler learns that the actress Sieland has caught the eye of the Minister of Culture (Thomas Thieme); Wiesler is chagrinned to realize that his true assignment is to help get the lecherous minister’s handsome rival out of the way. And second, Dreyman and Sieland’s home life—the ardent sex, yes, but also the intimate conversations and easy affection—begin to engage the interest of this dry, methodical bureaucrat, and he finds a furtive sense of humanity stirring within him. Soon, Wiesler is playing a dangerous game, supplying his usual thorough, detailed reports that actually tell his superiors very little about what is really going on, keeping the reality inside Dreyman and Sieland’s apartment more and more to himself.

The Lives of Others has its plot twists and surprises, but von Donnersmarck keeps them as subtle and low-key as Wiesler’s thawing heart. The tyranny of a force like Stasi may be relentless and insidious, the movie seems to say, but so are the workings of the human spirit, and in the end the former will be no match for the latter, as inexorable as flowing water wearing away stone. It’s a heartening, deeply humanist perspective, a bracing antidote to the bleak nihilism that usually permeates dramatizations of totalitarian dystopias (Orwell’s 1984, for example—or, for that matter, Pan’s Labyrinth).

What happens to the characters in The Lives of Others is best left for the viewer to discover. But we all know what happened to Stasi and the German Democratic Republic in real life. Von Donnersmarck gives us an epilogue set in 1990 after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the GDR, when the colors of a new day are beginning to warm the drab gray streets of East Berlin, even as party die-hards grumble about the good old days of the iron fist. You can weigh down the human spirit with oppression if you wish, the movie says, but your vanity will avail you nothing. The concrete will crack. The flower will bloom again.