The Lives of Others is a rare film. It's a solemn work of art, a thrilling piece of entertainment, and a heart-wrenching portrait of both compassion and oppression. Set in East Berlin in 1984, the film starkly dramatizes the atmosphere of secrecy and paranoia enshrouding the totalitarian German Democratic Republic, and in so doing it betrays a strange German cultural taboo: The Lives of Others speaks ill of the living.
As writer-director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck has noted in several interviews publicizing The Lives of Others, most German films made since the reunification portray East Germany comically, even nostalgically. Exemplifying this trend is 2003's casually ironic Goodbye, Lenin, whose plot centers on a young man's attempt to keep the fall of the Berlin Wall a secret from his mother after she wakes from a lengthy coma. It's a sweet, quirky movie, and many of its pleasures are derived from the bizarreness of its premise -- that a sane and decent person might rue the demise of the G.D.R. However, in Germany today, the prevalence of this curious, backward-seeming attitude extends far beyond film. Germans even have a name for it. They call it ostalgie (ost is the German word for east). Hip Berliners throw G.D.R. parties where they smoke notoriously awful East German cigarettes and drink East German rotgut while singing along to socialist party songs. One reason for these complicated feelings has to do with the present existence of the "villains" of the former government. Military officers, government officials, and members of the Stasi, the East German secret police, are still alive today, living normal lives among the rest of the German population, and as the years pass it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain the bitterness and scorn that these people once deserved.
The Lives of Others exhibits no such conflicted attitude. It's a grave and straightforward examination of the power of fear and man's ability to overcome it. At the center of the story are a celebrated writer, Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch), who's under suspicion of fomenting antigovernment sentiment, and the Stasi agent assigned to spy on him, Hauptman Gerd Weisler (Ulrich Mühe). Weisler is a talented and ruthless spy. He has no qualms about turning a husband against his wife, a child against his parents, in the name of national security, and it's clear from the beginning that Dreyman doesn't stand a chance against him.
That's when a strange thing happens. As Weisler records Dreyman's every step, patiently waiting for him to do or say anything that could be considered a crime against the state, Weisler comes to realize that his supervisor, Bruno, is carrying on an affair with Dreyman's wife, Christa-Maria. It seems that Bruno wants Dreyman out of the way so he can freely pursue Christa-Maria, a prominent actress and prescription drug addict who sees Bruno only because he provides her access to the medication she needs. Weisler, whose sense of propriety rivals his patriotism, is sickened by Bruno's abuse of power, and as he watches Dreyman and Christa-Maria in their private moments, he's touched by their imperfect yet passionate love for each other.
The broad strokes of this story possess enough inherent drama to maintain a good movie, but the particulars add up to much more than that. As Weisler begins to question the system of oppression he's devoted his life to supporting, as Dreyman marshals his intellectual courage and his capacity for forgiveness in order to take a stand against the G.D.R., as one character after another is forced to choose between love and betrayal, The Lives of Others elevates itself into a transcendent realm of perfectly observed humanity.
It would be a disservice to recount too many of the plot's intricacies, but it should be noted that von Donnersmarck is content at times to let the story meander. This is especially true of the finale, where it seems that The Lives of Others is shooting for some dubious record for the number of false endings. Be patient. The final resolution of The Lives of Others captures all of the sadness and glory of the final days of our very own lives. In short, it's perfect.
The Lives of Others is released in the UK on 13th March by Lionsgate Pictures.