The Lives of Others
Written and directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
With Ulrich Mühe, Sebastian Koch, and Martina Gedeck
The last line, the last look, the last moment: every movie lover knows that the ending can make or break a film. The Lives of Others — which just won a very well deserved Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film — has one of the greatest final lines of dialogue that I’ve ever heard in a movie. It’s so seemingly mundane that if I were to tell you what it is, you’d shrug and go, “Eh. What’s the big deal?” I won’t tell you, even though it wouldn’t spoil the film in any way, because I want you to be as haunted by its unexpected simplicity as I have been since I saw the film a few days ago. I keep coming back to that line — and to the look on the actor’s face, which encompasses everything strange and beautiful and hopeful and ironic about the film — and marveling at it.
This is an amazing film.
Written with a compelling wisdom and directed like it’s a classic ’70s noir by German filmmaker Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, Lives continues to untangle long after that last line, revealing more secret complications and unanticipated significance the more you turn it over in your mind. And it’s all really very uncomplicated on its surface. The year is 1984, East Berlin. The Wall will come down in only a few years, but it doesn’t feel that way now — it feels like this stifling oppression and unrelenting grayness will go on forever. (Hagen Bogdanski’s sick-green cinematography of cobblestoned streets and concrete-block architecture and cold bureaucracy only enhances the hopelessness.) Indeed, the threat of reducing a government employee to a menial task for the next 30 years is an effective one.
And in this environment we have a kind of demented triangle: Stasi officer Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe) has been instructed by his secret-police overlords to set up surveillance on playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch), who has up until now been seen as that rare kind of party loyalist, an artist who supports socialism and loves the East German regime. But what secret subversion is he espousing? So Wiesler sets up a spy shop in Dreyman’s apartment building, fully wiring his apartment for audio surveillance and crouching in the building’s attic to listen. The third corner of the triangle? Dreyman’s lover, actress Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck), who is appearing in Dreyman’s latest play and lives with him.
Now here’s where it gets interesting. It’s not that Wiesler falls in love with the beautiful actress, though he probably does, a little. It’s that he sees that this whole job is bullshit, prompted by a party official who wants Sieland for himself, wants a rival out of the way. And that’s what causes Wiesler to suddenly question his work, to begin lying in his reports to his bosses, begin working for Dreyman, and not against him. Wiesler is a fascinating character — he is a truly honorable man, even though he’s thrown his honor, up ’till now, on the side of the devils … but as he begins to see them as devils, and begins to see the beauty and value of a life full of art and love and friends and passion, as Dreyman has and Wiesler has not, well, that’s when he starts to question. You might say he falls a little in love with Dreyman, not in a sexual way, but in a romantic way, in the old-fashioned definition of the word that embraces idealism and imagination and hope.
And yet The Lives of Others is so much more than all that, as if that weren’t enough. Questions of the inevitability of freedom over oppression bubble up, as you worry away at the film in your mind; questions about what constitutes honor and what constitutes crime; ironies about how the machine of oppression creates its own opposition, creates its own enemies. What does it mean to love when you can trust no one, when anyone could be an informer? What does it mean to put value in obedience to corrupt “betters”? How do we cope when the rules we’ve taken for granted change in an instant?
By the time The Lives of Others is over, we’ve jumped to years past the fall of the Wall, but no answers are readily found. But it’s the asking of them — that they can even be asked — that sticks with you.