Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Lives of Others

In the last years of the euphemistically named German Democratic Republic (GDR) a staggering percentage of the population was on the payroll of the Ministry for State Security aka the Stasi. The Stasi's goal was to know everything and by all accounts they came very close to reaching it. They did it with an official payroll of 100,000 along with hundreds of thousands of paid informants -- as many as 1 in 50 East German citizens. The GDR couldn't produce a decent car, but they refined the apparatus of the police state to a science.

I finally had a chance to watch The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen), the winner of the 2006 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. This category has become something of a joke in recent years because of the Academy's odd definition of what makes a foreign language film, but in this case it was well deserved. This is a terrific film in every way! It's an assured debut for German writer/director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. I didn't detect a single false step in the script or direction. It's also one of the best depictions of life in a totalitarian society I've ever seen. As an aside -- those on the far left or far right who claim America is a police state should watch this film to see what a real police state looks like.

The Lives of Others revolves around the personal and professional life of mid-level Stasi agent Captain Gerd Wiesler played brilliantly by Ulrich Mühe. He's tasked with the surveillance of a prominent writer and his actress girlfriend, but comes to find out that there's more than possible subversive activity involved. When everyone is watching (and listening) to everyone else, things get murky in a hurry. Wiesler seems to be a true believer in the Stasi's mission. Or is he? Perhaps he's become a master at playing the games necessary for survival, but this operation will prove the undoing of his stony-faced professionalism. His evolution is strikingly similar to that of the character played by Gene Hackman in Coppola's The Conversation, and fans of that film will see other similarities. The tension ratchets up scene upon scene culminating in an unforgettable conclusion.

The Lives of Others is superb historical drama, but it's also superb cinema. Watching a film is fundamentally a voyeuristic experience. Hitchcock understood this better than anyone and exploited it in films like Rear Window and Psycho. Director Donnersmarck exploits it too. There's a Rear Window-ish quality as we watch the watcher watching the watched. Watching others has the potential to change the viewer in ways both good and bad. In East Germany the state was the ultimate reality and spies like Wiesler were it's omniscient eyes and ears. This movie could just as well have been titled The Sins of Others. The Stasi never slept in their search for secret "sins" that could be used for the benefit of the state. But sometimes the tables are turned. As Wiesler watched and listened he saw other things: beauty, forgiveness, courage, even grace -- all obviously missing from his own life. It was fascinating to see how what started out as passive voyeurism turned into active involvement.

Watching this film I was struck again by the "banality of evil" (a phrase from Hannah Arendt). There's a comic quality to the party big-shots in their ill-fitting suits and the Stasi agents with their awkward manners. The team of agents that shows up to do a search of the writer's apartment looks like they could have stepped out of Ghostbusters or Revenge of the Nerds. Except these men were the willing tools of a brutally efficient regime that ruined the lives and careers of thousands. With The Lives of Others, Donnersmarck has told a great story, but he's also made a fitting tribute to the victims of this chapter of German history.

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