The Stasi cast a shadow over all the citizens within reach

The Lives of Others

An Illusion Review by Joan Ellis

            “The Lives of Others” is a superb rendering of a culture both dead and alive. Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck has written and directed this film that unfolds in the Orwellian state of East Germany in 1984 when the secret police, the Stasi, cast a shadow over all the citizens within reach. With 100,000 employees and double that number of informers spread among the citizenry, they made it their business to know what everyone was doing. More than that, they watched words and deeds so closely and clandestinely that most people never knew when they were being tracked. If anything can hang dread in the air, that will.

            The Stasi determined, even when it actually did not, everything that was written, acted, or shown in that small Communist controlled state until citizens became ciphers – if you say and do nothing, no one can say you are bad. When the thoughts of a citizenry are shut down by the government of the moment, it takes a very short time to erase vibrancy and turn people, minds, buildings, streets, and apartments into a monochromatic shade of dead gray. Feelings disappear. Surveillance is reductive.

            Von Donnersmarck has captured the dark edges of secrecy with a restraint that becomes dazzling in its effectiveness. No false notes here. Acting, directing, photography, quiet sound track – all are consistent in building the dominant culture of gloom. When the focus narrows in this grim place, we are left to watch playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) who writes in the apartment where he lives with Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck). Even Stasi Captain Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Muehe) thinks Dreyman is not subversive. A non-subversive artist in a dead society seems to Wiesler an impossibility. Mustn’t all art be a seed bed for resistance?

            Too good to be true Wiesler knows, and so he has Dreyman’s apartment wired and tapped as he himself sits in an attic watching the closed circuit TV he has installed. As Wiesler watches the daily life of Dreyman and Sieland at work and in love in their drab surroundings, he involuntarily submits to a journey of appreciation and understanding. We have now two decent men wrestling with their culture and their consciences. The villains - bureaucrats on the sidelines - play the role only of maintaining the Communist culture. Dreyman and Sieland, on the other hand, are troubled by the stirrings of human decency that so often grow into significance from small beginnings.

            Undistracted by villains or physical violence, we are held completely by the sight of what surveillance, and perhaps even more deadly, the threat of it, can do to chill a whole society. Sebastian Koch’s Dreyman and Ulrich Muehe’s Wiesler are wonderfully realized characters. Director von Donnersmarck has the great sense not to mar his grand movie with final theatrics. Instead, he finds a way to end with a small gesture that is a powerful capstone to everything we have seen. Don’t miss this one.

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