“No matter how often you say it in your plays, people do not change!” an East Germany minister declares to playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) in the movie. This is an ironic statement considering that East Germany in 1984 was part of Soviet Union at the time, and communism is predicated on the belief that human nature is malleable and that people can be improved, even if one has to break a few eggs in the process. It also encapsulates the protagonist’s arc: the moral rebirth of Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe), a high officer in the secret police, the feared Stasi. Wiesler, entrusted by his social-climbing superior, Grubitz (Ulrich Tukur), to spy on Dreyman and his actress girlfriend, Christa (Martina Gedeck) in the hope of finding something that will destroy him so a minister can have Christa for himself.
This is the plot, at turns far-fetched and sentimental, but mostly chilling and heart-wrenching, that filmmaker Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck found to depict the actions of the secret police in East Germany. It’s a plot that has its strengths and weaknesses, the most evident being the unclear motivation of the methodical, emotionally detached Wiesler to risk his career in helping a trouble-making playwright. Wiesler is a cipher without a back-story; his political convictions, or lack of them, aren’t properly addressed in the film: we can’t tell whether he’s a staunch supporter or just an everyman doing his job by conformity. The movie portrays him as a lonely, efficient, paranoid workaholic. So his about-face raises questions of motivation.
This, incidentally, is a difficulty I often find in movies about protagonists who rebel against criminal organizations they previously worked for. An example from recent years can be found in Syriana. You’ll remember George Clooney plays a CIA agent who, after a lifetime serving the agency, discovers it’s doing bad things. The intelligent viewer will, of course, pause to wonder what rock he lived under when he wasn’t in a mission, to consider that the CIA was a benign agency, when there’s ample literature documenting its countless crimes, such as drugging its own agents with LSD to study the after-effects, paying a Canadian psychiatrist to perform illegal shock therapy on unwilling patients, and occasionally backing military coups in democracies. In the 21st century a CIA agent can’t be that innocent. But Syriana needed a rogue CIA agent. And The Lives of Others needed a Stasi agent to learn to become human again, and that’s a development that is always hard to portray convincingly. For how does a person learn to become good? We’ll just invoke the acte gratuite here. Writer André Gide came up with this term, which translates roughly into gratuitous act, to name unmotivated actions needed to start the plot. The movie, of course, takes a shot at explaining Wiesler’s metamorphosis, and that’s another one of its weaknesses. Henckel, being a filmmaker, an artist, evidently believes art can improve people. The movie chalks up Wiesler’s transformation to the art he comes into contact while surveilling the playwright’s apartment. This reaches its climax when he cries listening to Beethoven’s ‘Appassionata’. “Can anyone who has heard this music,” the playwright asks Christa while he plays it in the piano, Wiesler listening to them, “I mean truly heard it, really be a bad person?” History proves, yes, they can, Mr. Idealistic-Writer-Bordering-On-Parody. But this movie will prove that people who like Beethoven are all self-sacrificing and intrinsically good. They just need a string of well-articulated tunes to remember them of their humanity. We’ll forgive Henckel for this since it’s an artist’s prerogative to be naive.
The good far outweighs the bad in this movie, though. Its acting and writing are superb. The screenplay humanizes the Stasi agents in a way that is probably too unpleasant for some viewers, which makes it as courageous as another German movie, The Downfall, which boldly portrayed Adolf Hitler as a three-dimensional character several years ago. Although it’s easier to hate monsters, the characters in this movie are all too familiar in their pettiness, ambitions, fear and subservience. Power is the most overt theme in the movie, after freedom of expression, and the movie does a good job of showing the hierarchy of power in East Germany, from the untouchable ministers down to the Stasi officers, the agents on the field, and finally the citizens at the bottom of the pyramid, spied on, interrogated, blackmailed and tortured arbitrarily.
The dialogue is excellent too, focused on the story while developing the characters, and full of double-entendres: dialogue, like the characters, has two faces, a private and a public one, the word’s meaning changing according to circumstances, which makes this movie perfect for repeated viewings. The actors must have realized how good their roles were because they brought their best talent to it. Although the acting is generally good, Ulrich Mühe is head and shoulder above his co-stars. He delivers a fantastic performance as an emotionally reserved secret agent who lays his soul bare without the usual overwrought shenanigans that characterize Oscar-baiting performances. His minimalist acting, which mirrors the effect of his work on his existence, triumphantly results in one of the best performances of the last decade.
Although the acting and writing are top notch, Henckel fares worse with the look of the movie. There are often touches of talent in the mise-en-scène: Wiesler’s apartment, for instance, with its white wallpaper and sparse furniture, speaks volumes about his loneliness. The only time some color enters it is when he brings a prostitute there. But Henckel films most scenes without any flair. Oscar. Defenders of Pan’s Labyrinth – a movie I detested, incidentally – have reasons to argue it was a more Oscar-worthy movie. I found the plot ludicrous and the acting generally bad, but at least Guillermo Del Toro knows how to direct the hell out of each scene: you scrutinize frame by frame and you can tell artistic consideration went into each decision of what to show, how to show it, what colors to use, et cetera. Last year, the Academy also decided the equivalent of a filmed stage play should win Best Picture: it was in fact a toss up between a stage play called The King’s Speech and a stage play called The Social Network. At no time was a movie with actual direction in the race for the Oscar, which is weird. I know there are fans of invisible direction, but for me good direction is more than knowing how to point the camera at actors. Orson Welles didn’t win an Oscar for Citizen Kane, but I doubt he’d win one today either, given his propensity to remind us there camera is there, with his use of deep focus, close-ups, tracking shots and low-angle shots.
Still, the acting and the writing are so powerful, and they complement each other so harmoniously, they survive the director’s lack of talent. The messages of individual freedom, the arbitrariness of power and personal responsibility somehow escape from the camera’s dull stare. Whether as a fictional portrayal of an era and place rarely seen in cinema, as a morality tale, or as a work of art, The Lives of Others is an achievement of the highest order in modern cinema.
Director: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
Screenwriter: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
Cast: Ulrich Mühe, Ulrich Tukur, Martina Gedeck, Sebastian Koch
Runtime: 137 min