I have seen two films about the East German Stasi, the Secret Police. The first I saw was Barbara (2012) (review), about a woman attempting to get herself out of East Germany while under the surveillance of the Stasi. Obviously, that film was from the perspective of the surveilled. The second film, and the subject of this review, was The Lives of Others (2007) about the Stasi and one officer in particular. The Stasi is a thrilling topic for a movie. Thrilling for me, anyway, and an enormous human rights violation for those who lived in East Germany. People who bark at the idea of an NSA computer being able to comb through their e-mail could get some perspective from a scene in The Lives of Others where conveyor belts carry ‘private’ letters to Stasi staff to steam-open. And when I search “movies about the Stasi”, I get two links to The Lives of Others and an article from a right-wing blog titled The Stasi: Hollywood’s Best Kept Little Secret. While I’m not ready to attribute intent on the part of Hollywood, it is interesting to note that while many US or UK-oriented Cold War films have been made, very few (if any to my knowledge) have taken up the perspective of the French, Germans, or anyone else, frankly, with respect to domestic or international espionage. [A quick search brought up Farewell (2009), but that’s a French film.]
Lt. Col. Grubitz (Ulrich Tukur) and Capt. Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe), senior officers of the Stasi, are attending a play written by Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) and starring Dreyman’s lover Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck). Something about Dreyman draws Wiesler’s attention, but Grubitz knows Dreyman to be a good party man, despite being a writer. Immediately after the play, conversing with Culture Minister Hempf (Thomas Thieme), climbing the greasy pole, Hempf suggests that Dreyman be put under surveillance. Wiesler is put in charge and soon everything Dreyman says becomes a matter of record. Over time, and as little of note is found on Dreyman, Wiesler slowly begins to take liberties in his reports.
The Lives of Others, written and directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck—can’t get more German than that—is really just a good movie. If you hear that this is a foreign film about the East German secret police, you may be excused for anticipating a dark psychological thriller or a bleak, unsaturated dystopia. This film is neither of those things. There are some thrills, yes, but this is closer to a historical drama with the Stasi playing an un-hyped character. We see the Stasi for what they are, of course, but that’s an end to it. Donnersmarck doesn’t submerge them in shadows and discordant music, he puts them in offices or in an abandoned, but homey attic and they listen to jazz. The subjects are not tireless soldiers for democracy, but conflicted humans finding their place in a hostile world that is currently comfortable. The biggest surprise comes with a prologue-like ending that is neither schmaltzy nor existential. It’s an ending. Why does that amaze me?
There’s a good reason why this won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film. There’d be ample justification for Mühe to get a nomination for Best Actor because he’s excellent. In fact, so is Koch and Gedeck (Tukur isn’t called upon to do anything of such dramatic weight to earn acclaim so much as a nod of approval). This is such a pleasantly good movie, an all-rounder as I like to say. It also has the benefit of providing a portrait of a time and place very rarely addressed in film. The poster suggests a great deal more angst than the film actually provides.
I recommend you check it out.