Art triumphs amid repression and surveillance in The Lives of Others

By Rob Weisenberger

While the hammer and compass insignia of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) makes for visually interesting retro T-shirts, some college students might forget that life in the former East Germany was something less than a socialist paradise.

The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen), which was shown in a special pre-release screening at the University of Chicago Film Studies Center on February 7, gives the lie to the popular nostalgia of a quirky and humanitarian GDR (a phenomenon known in German as Ostalgie). By focusing on the ruthlessness of the Staatssicherheit (Stasi), the 200,000-strong secret police force that monitored and controlled life in the DDR, The Lives of Others illuminates the constant paranoia, censorship, blackmail, and violence of the East German regime with chilling clarity.

The film’s genius, however, goes far beyond the vividness with which it depicts the gray color scheme of life in the GDR. Far more, The Lives of Others is a meditation on empathy, the social conditions for the production of art, and the transformative effect that great art can have. That these themes emerge gracefully from a smart and highly suspenseful plot is why I doubt that I’ll see a better film this year.

Set in 1984 and carrying us through to the united Germany of 1991, the story tells of celebrated East German playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) and his actress girlfriend (Martina Gedeck). The two are placed under Stasi surveillance indicative of government routine as much as organizational corruption. The outstanding Ulrich Mühe plays Stasi Captain Gerd Wiesler, a faithful ideologue tasked with monitoring the couple. The range of expression conveyed through Mühe’s eyes—fixed in the stony face of a precise and brutal bureaucrat—is breathtaking.

Wiesler monitors the couple from the attic of their bugged apartment, recording and reporting with clinical detail their conversations, their parties, even their lovemaking. As Dreyman begins to sense the hollowness of his own artistic freedom under the GDR, he also awakens to his obligation to dissent. After one of his playwright friends takes his own life after years of inactivity under government blacklist, Dreyman decides to write an exposé of the astounding and unreported rate of suicides induced by East German life.

The film’s unfolding from this premise is riveting, and the artfulness with which it tells its story is remarkable. In particular, the haunting notes of the “Sonata for a Good Man” from Dreyman’s piano to Wiesler’s surveillance headphones catalyze the Stasi captain’s transformation—a change registered in his eyes and in his actions. Gabriel Yared’s exquisite score accentuates the transformative power of this music.

As the first-time feature director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck explained in a discussion with Chicago students and faculty, his assignment to Yared for the score was: “You have two minutes in 1933 to play music for Hitler” with the task of dissuading him from launching the crimes of that next decade.

The conversation with von Donnersmarck ranged from a historical discussion of frustrated artists and bad art in the GDR to the director’s preference for the open American art market over the European system—or any other in which art is, through government funding, in some sense state-controlled. The conversation also took in the artist’s own commercial ambitions and even a casual discussion of who had seen what Oscar-nominated films this year. The experience with von Donnersmarck, like that of seeing his film, was a privilege.

The Lives of Others will likely become the highest-grossing German film ever to appear in American theaters. It has received rave reviews, swept the European Film Awards, and is nominated for a Best Foreign Film Oscar. It deserves every award that it receives.