A true dictatorship cuckolds every man and whores every woman. Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s brilliant The Lives of Others memorializes the excesses of East Germany in 1984, but on an intimate, nonmonumental scale. Aspects of this film are almost a farce with the comedy missing.
An actress, desired by three men, is the cause of all action. She is Christa-Maria (Martina Gedeck), a popular onstage figure. Her ice-blue eye shadow is the only mark of color in one of those fetchingly weary German faces the screen gives us from time to time, like the face of Dietrich or Hildegard Neff. Her lover, Georg (Sebastian Koch), is a gentle, apolitical playwright and poet, considered safe by the GDR government–“our only nonsubversive writer.”
Though he has dubious friends, such as a blacklisted theater director, Georg is considered above suspicion. The East German state minister Hempf (the J. T. Walsh look-alike Thomas Thieme) believes that Georg has something to hide and orders the bugging of the playwright’s flat. The officer tapped for the job is the sure-of-himself Capt. Wiesler (Ulrich M¸he), who has been entranced with Christa-Marie since the first time he saw her in a play.
As Wiesler listens in on the couple from a secret room in the attic of their building, something of Georg’s creativity seems to grow in him. In an odd sense, the secret policeman becomes a writer, too, as he rephrases the two artists’ daily life, editing it and recording it on his typewriter. Georg has a significant line: There must be some music, such as Beethoven, that would make a person good just by listening to it. Monitoring these two lives awakes some dormant compassion in Wiesler.
Christa-Marie is a wreck. She takes illegal pills, possibly to deal with the guilt of her forced liaisons with Minister Hempf himself. It is likely that “Operation Lazlo,” the grandiose title of this sordid surveillance duty, is really meant to discredit Georg as Hempf’s rival. Realizing this duplicity, Wiesler begins to sabotage his reports. Eventually, he tries to be a good angel to the couple, with calamitous results.
I would add that Henckel von Donnersmarck’s superb depiction of the bunkerlike halls and snot-green colors of the Berlin bureaucratic offices is more than just anti-communist horse beating. In the coda, Hempf becomes a devil’s advocate, claiming that the old communist republic gave you something to push against, something to fight for. In the West, there was a certain happiness in living in a time before “history ended,” to use one too-ebullient phrase about the raising of the Iron Curtain. It was the happiness of knowing there was an alternative. Once this communist alternative was understood as state capitalism patrolled by vast armies of squealers and secret policemen, the only role left for the rest of the world was to become happy consumers–pieces of krill in the food chain.
The Lives of Others isn’t specifically about the nature of communism; it’s about the nature of an intelligence state, about the supreme overconfidence that bungles its job and sows the very enemies it tries to contain. The film shows us how a culture of surveillance perpetuates itself, something that America is starting to learn about. Thus, The Lives of Others is not just a crafty, thinking-person’s thriller worthy of Fritz Lang or a grim anti-comedy worthy of Billy Wilder. It is also a warning of the future that is already underway.
‘The Lives of Others’ opens on Friday, March 2, at the Rialto Lakeside Cinemas, 551 Summerfield Road, Santa Rosa. 707.525.4840.
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