Das leben der anderen (The Lives of Others, 2006) is the first movie directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. What a debut! The film takes place in East Germany (Deutsche Demokratische Republik, DDR) in 1984, its protagonist is captain of the Staatssicherheitsdienst (more commonly known as Stasi), the secret police of that time, and it’s incredibly powerful and fascinating.
Does everyone know the plot? Let me summarize it quickly without entering too much into spoiler territory. A gray employee of the Stasi with great experience in interrogation, torture, and obtaining confessions (so much so that he teaches the methods at the University) called Gerd Wiesler (an actor as good as unlucky named Ulrich Mühe: he died of stomach cancer the year after the release of this film) is assigned to the surveillance of a poet, Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch, who later appeared in various Hollywood films such as Spielberg’s lackluster Bridge of spies). The government thinks that the artist may engage in counter-revolutionary activities. In reality, it becomes quickly obvious that the real reason for the surveillance is that the culture minister Bruno Hempf (Thomas Thieme) is infatuated with Dreyman’s partner, Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck): getting rid of Dreyman would pave the way for a relationship with her, so he doesn’t hesitate to manipulate Lieutenant Colonel Grubitz (Ulrich Tukur) to put in place the surveillance plan. Grubitz relies on Wiesler to do the dirty job, that is to fill Dreyman’s house with microphones and listen to him 24 hours a day.
But there’s a problem: Dreyman is not a counter-revolutionary, far from it, despite having friends who aren’t happy about the political situation in the country. But the minister doesn’t want to hear about it, and with his power he brings to exasperation those of Dreyman’s inner circle until a great friend and mentor of him commits suicide. Only then will Dreyman write something critical about his country to be published in the West… And I stop here in order not to spoil the vision to those who haven’t yet seen this film, as it absolutely deserves to be seen.
What works in this movie? Everything. The script is impeccable, every character is well written, every situation is well designed, all the actors are perfect, the direction is non-invasive and perfectly cold, the soundtrack is adequate and appropriately old school. All the characters in this film are so fascinating that I find it difficult to describe it in such a short review. The minister is extremely creepy, the lieutenant colonel is credible in his desire for a career no matter what, the idealist poet and his circle of friends and colleagues are all absolutely realistic… and Wiesler is the most interesting protagonist that a film like this can ask for. Gray even in the choice of clothes, the film reveals his personality little by little thanks to his silences and his actions more than to his words. His evolution is extraordinary and by the end of the movie it’s hard not to become emotional with his story and with that of the rest of the characters.
What else? The historical reconstruction is exceptionally well done, I’m certain that hundreds of hours of work went into each second of this movie! For example, it’s not surprising to read that all the Stasi devices that appear in the film are actual instruments originally used by Stasi personnel and were lent to the production of the film by museums and private collectors. The film is so full of food for thought that I don’t even know where to start… and we’re talking about the recent past, so everything has such power! In 2006, the year the film was released, not only there were people alive who had worked in that crazy system for which the Stasi employed 100 thousand people and had 200 thousand informants throughout the country, but they were still working somehow and somewhere! The Berlin wall had fallen only 17 years earlier! It’s fascinating to discover how a society based on fear and control could work and use so many resources for absolutely absurd purposes, and we’re talking about the heart of Europe, not North Korea!
But let me get back to the characters for a moment, since I only praised that of Wiesler. The character arc of the poet and his partner Christa-Maria are no less interesting than that of the gray captain! For both, the plot offers changes and decisions that affect their lives and also the audience. It’s impossible to remain indifferent to the inner torment of Christa-Maria who has to choose between various equally negative and dangerous options, as it’s impossible not to sympathize with Dreyman’s stance after his friend’s death, despite the fact that he puts in danger both himself and his partner.
In short, this film is very powerful. There’s a beautiful scene in which Dreyman, after the fall of the Berlin wall, visits the Stasi archives to see if there was a dossier about him, and finds a huge one. And this is no fantasy! The poor DDR citizens could really check if the state had controlled them… in fact, the actor Ulrich Mühe did it and found out that there was a dossier on him and that some of his friends and colleagues (he was a theater actor during the years of the regime) had passed information about his life to the secret service. When asked how he prepared for the role, he simply replied, “I remembered.“
Thus, I guess that you are now curious about what the director with the long and unpronounceable name did after he made this masterpiece. The answer is… The tourist (2010) with Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie. That’s it.
Ok… how do you explain it? My explanation is the following: The lives of others was a passion project of the good Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, and it shows (he spent three years writing, producing, directing, and editing it). It’s clear that the film is the result of much work and much inspiration. For example, he stated that the idea of the film came from some words of Lenin who spoke with Maxim Gorky about Beethoven’s sonatas. Lenin said that he couldn’t listen to that music too often because his mood changed and made him want to say kind and stupid things and caress the heads of his fellow human beings. He said that this would have him exposed to the danger of having his hand bitten and that it was rather better to hit the others mercilessly on the head in order to bring about the revolution. The reminiscence of Gorky ends with Lenin complaining about the difficulty of his revolutionary task. Although not immediate, this reference to Lenin’s words fits very well with the narrative arcs of both Wiesler and Dreyman.
Instead, I suppose that for The tourist he worked as a director for hire, and having to adapt to the pressure of the Hollywood producers. I don’t know how else to explain such a short and erratic filmography. Besides, I haven’t seen The tourist. No one has (ask Ricky Gervais). However, in 2018 Florian made another movie set in the DDR, Werk ohne Autor (Never look away) but I haven’t seen it, yet! Meanwhile, let me recommend watching this The lives of others, you won’t regret it.
The more I think about it, the more I like it! For example, do you recognize Wiesler’s colleague in the scene in which he opens letters with steam? You already saw it an hour earlier in the movie, right? This kind of attention to detail makes me appreciate even more this film, I find it perfect! Ciao!