One of the many awful products of Soviet-bloc communism was East Germany’s Stasi; the surveillance-obsessed police operation makes for a stellar antagonist in German filmmaker Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s "The Lives of Others." Human goodness, meanwhile, emerges as an even stronger force in this deceptively hard-edged thriller. Regardless of whether you buy that, von Donnersmarck, an impressive newcomer, has you embracing this picture.
A flip side of sorts to "Good Bye, Lenin," von Donnersmarck’s film, while certainly idealistic, lacks sentimentality. Rather than old-style pickles, there’s nasty-looking institutional grub in his East Germany. The wallpaper isn’t an amusingly anti-capitalist eyesore; it conceals wiretaps.
The drama opens in, appropriately, 1984, in an East Berlin where typewriters are deemed virtual WMDs by Stasi agents like Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Muhe). Stiff and stalwart, Wiesler zealously accepts his assignment to bug and get dirt on Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch), a too-loyal-for-comfort playwright who lives with hisgirlfriend, Christa-Maria (Martina Gedek). Dreyman can’t stay complacent after a blacklisted friend commits suicide, and Wiesler, too, awakens. Wiesler becomes disillusioned with the regime and stirred by the artists. Moved by, for starters, a piano sonata, he undermines the investigation.
Though von Donnersmarck has cited admiration for Freud, his film isn’t great psychodrama. Wiesler’s immense transformation is hard to buy. Christa-Maria is a tragic figure, but von Donnersmarck doesn’t develop her enough. Still, the movie is an engrossing political thriller and an affecting salute to art.
Von Donnersmarck, via keen writing and a compelling atmosphere, potently depicts the police-state mentality (monitoring every aspect of citizens’ lives, the Stasi employed an estimated 91,000 highly trained employees and 300,000 informants). An audience-friendly filmmaker, he also finds perverse humor in some of this. The final passages, set in reunified Germany, are moving.
Among the fine cast, Muhe is noteworthy. With superb subtlety, the actor under the earphones captures how decent people can come to personify vile ideology, how suppressed humanity, with the right stimulus, can surface triumphantly, and how art, while it’s never stopped wars, is glorious to experience.
Starring Ulrich Muhe, Sebastian Koch, Martina Gedek, Ulrich Tukur
Written and directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
Running time 2 hours, 17 minutes