"The Lives of Others" | In a police state, desperation and comic absurdity
East Germany's soul-destroying police state dominates the thoughts of every character in Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's "The Lives of...
Special to The Seattle Times
East Germany's soul-destroying police state dominates the thoughts of every character in Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's "The Lives of Others," which mostly takes place in 1984, five years before the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Yet what you're likely to take away from his Oscar-nominated drama in the foreign-language category is a sense of hope that feels neither forced nor sentimental. In the end, it's about the singular power of a redemptive human gesture.
The first half of the film is reminiscent of Francis Ford Coppola's 1974 classic, "The Conversation," in which Gene Hackman played a surveillance expert who becomes increasingly obsessed with the people he spies on. Almost inevitably, this very private man feels exposed and cornered, convinced that someone is spying on him.
For much of its length, Donnersmarck's movie seems to be heading in the same direction. Ulrich Mühe plays a variation on the Hackman role: Capt. Gerd Wiesler, who works for the Stasi, East Germany's secret police, and bugs the apartment of a successful playwright, Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch), and his actress-girlfriend, Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck).
But Wiesler's obsession eventually takes off on a different course. As he becomes familiar in his one-way fashion with "the lives of others," he begins to feel like a member of this theatrical family. Ultimately he's forced to choose between helping them and reporting to a corrupt party boss, who has coerced Sieland into a sexual relationship.
A first-time director, von Donnersmarck pulls no punches in setting up this deadly situation. In one shattering scene, a lunchtime joke is instantly classified as "deriding the party," and the joker, a young Stasi recruit, is asked for his name, rank and department. As the blood drains from his face, his tormentor indicates he was just kidding. Or was he?
It's scarily obvious that the recruit isn't at all sure what's a joke, what's a tease and what could get him demoted or locked away. As one party hard-liner points out, isolation for months is guaranteed to kill the creative spirit in anyone: "Writers no longer write, artists no longer paint.">
"Self-murder" is an ever-present option for these characters. Dreyman's blacklisted mentor hangs himself, and he's not the only casualty. Grief-stricken, the playwright makes his first radical move by trying to expose East Germany's appallingly high suicide rates in a West German publication.
The story's essential grimness is inescapable, but there's some relief. In one darkly hilarious scene, a typewriter expert, asked who could have written the suicide piece, demonstrates that he not only knows that Dreyman writes in longhand, he knows which typewriter he uses — and which one Dreyman would likely use to escape detection! This is a society so addicted to snooping that it doesn't dare to recognize the comic absurdity of it.
As Wiesler eavesdrops on the couple's intimacies and begins to question his allegiance to the party, he becomes a volatile mixture of voyeur and guardian angel. The irony is not lost on the actors, especially Mühe, who wryly celebrates his character's contradictions, and Koch, who makes the playwright's obliviousness part of his charm. In the end, it's their connection that gives the movie its surprising power.
John Hartl: email@example.com