'Das Leben der Anderen' succeeds because it makes the horrifying mundane
It’s a strange paradox: regimes that try to suppress revolutionary art invariably end up inspiring it. Occasionally, depictions of the suffocating quotidian realities of these regimes can function as cautionary tales as well as works of art. The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, 2006), is one such example.
In 1984, when the film begins, East Germany is still under the watchful eye of Big Brother. The State Security Service - known as the Stasi, the ‘shield and sword’ of the ruling Socialist Unity party, in collaboration with the Soviet Union’s KGB, rigidly controlled the population of the German Democratic Republic through surveillance until the Berlin Wall came down.
Odd then, that one of the most effective secret police forces in history, which at the height of its almost forty-year rule could count on at least 6 per cent of the population as informants, remains relatively unexplored in cinema.
So it was inevitable that The Lives of Others would be compared with its successful predecessor, Good Bye Lenin! (Wolfgang Becker, 2003), set just a little later around the 1989 revolution and the reunification of Germany. But unlike Becker’s tragicomedy, criticised for its strains of so-called Ostalgie or rose-tinted view of a Communist past, this debut from Henckel von Donnersmarck is rather more bleak fare.
The film opens with a Stasi officer, Captain Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe), using a recording of his latest interrogation to teach a university lecture on how to effectively break a suspect. The juxtaposition between the sleep-deprived subject’s tears and the wide-eyed students introduces the film’s most consistent theme: that such a terrifying behemoth of a secret police must also be so bureaucratically mundane. The defining characteristic of the Stasi, after all, was the sheer volume of paperwork of a nation under watch.
Wiesler attends a play by Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch), who is considered faultlessly loyal to the party. Gut feeling leads Wiesler to suspect the writer, which happens to coincide with the Minister of Culture’s ugly infatuation with Dreyman’s girlfriend and leading lady, Christa-Maria (Martina Gedeck). Wiesler puts the couple under round-the-clock watch. Surveillance turns to voyeurism, and he becomes increasingly caught up in their lives, functioning as a sort of guardian angel - albeit one who submits reports on their sex life.
We’re shown the low-tech logistics of mass surveillance, with Wiesler crouched in the attic over chalk floorplans, as well as the pettiness of mistrust. In a nation where anyone can be watched, life-or-death decisions about who to watch are made on the flimsiest of whims. An ideological stand is taken by a drunk artist, a Stasi colleague’s off-colour joke is denounced as incitement, Dreyman is targeted due to jealousy and sordid backseat sexual trysts, and Christa-Maria’s addiction to prescription pills forces her into betrayal.
We also see the impossibility of impartial observation. Wiesler’s act of mercy in choosing not to expose Dreyman leads to a dangerous false sense of security. When he later approaches her anonymously to tell her that her art matters; that she need not sell herself to the odious minister, his attempt is futile, and Christa-Maria, the charismatic but faded icon, is ultimately undone by Wiesler’s well-intentioned missteps and Dreyman’s naivety. He begs Christa-Maria not to sleep with the Minister, and she turns on him for his hypocrisy: ‘You get into bed with them too … why do you do it? Because they can destroy you too, despite your talent and your faith.’
The film was an international success, winning the Best Foreign Language Oscar as well as setting a record for most nominations at the German Film Awards. Its mastery is in convincingly depicting why a man like Wiesler might become seduced by the couple’s domestic intimacy and grow disillusioned with the regime. We are shown his sparse flat and friendless life, where his only experience of love is a brusque prostitute too busy to hold him afterwards. There is a stark disconnect between human emotion and the language used to record it: when Dreyman and Christa-Maria make passionate love, Wiesler types poker-faced: ‘Vigorous act of intimacy follow.’
It’s a testament to Mühe’s award-winning and controlled performance, perhaps informed by the actor’s background (he had lived in East Germany under the Stasi, and once had to read his own surveillance file), that Wiesler’s tenderness to Christa-Maria is just as convincing as his ruthless interrogation of her. After all, it’s asking a lot of an audience to believe that a man who collects the sweat-soaked chair pads of suspects for the sniffer dogs could be won over by a love affair.
Indeed for some, the film went too far in its attempts to humanise the Stasi agents, who were responsible for so much erosion of trust and community, where anyone - colleague, neighbour, lover - could denounce you. The film’s ending, unrealistic as it is unsatisfying, seeks to exculpate both Dreyman and Wiesler despite the tragedy they have wrought. Dreyman believes himself and Wiesler, ‘a good man’, redeemed by their lacklustre rebellion, when it is Christa-Maria who really paid the price.
Between a few brutal shocks, Das Leben der Anderen succeeds where it is quietest: rather than the overarching geopolitics, it grounds itself in the citizen’s everyday, hinting at the fall of the Berlin Wall through a wireless in an underground office. This is a period drama that looks unsettlingly familiar, and the grey urban landscape, modern costumes and weary human relentlessness seem all too close for comfort.