THE LIVES OF OTHERS (DAS LEBEN DER ANDEREN) (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, 2006)
Armed with the ability and authority to monitor anyone worthy of suspicion, the East German secret police, known as the Stasi, were a fearsome force in the former Communist country. Tasked to know everything about the lives of the population, the Stasi relied on a web of informers and surveillance on a level that approaches omniscience regarding its subjects.
Typically on the observing end, THE LIVES OF OTHERS finds the Stasi under scrutiny in 1984 East Berlin. Captain Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe) is assigned to keep an eye and ear on Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch), a playwright heretofore believed to be friendly to the government. Minister Bruno Hempf (Thomas Thieme) alleges that the writer may not be as loyal as everyone thinks and strongly encourages that he be put under total surveillance.
The action appears driven more by the Minister's interest in Dreyman's actress girlfriend Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck) than any tangible proof of subversion, but Wiesler carries out his duty to bug Dreyman's home and listen in on his every move and conversation. Initially Dreyman gives no indication that he harbors opinions counter to the ruling party, but as the oppressive regime's power is felt on a personal level, Dreyman begins to become the radical Hempf suggested he was.
As a Cold War thriller, THE LIVES OF OTHERS is gripping stuff replete with the nuts and bolts of all-encompassing surveillance. It's fascinating to see the lightning efficiency and near-invisibility of Wiesler's crew and his chilling admonition to a neighbor who accidentally witnesses the wiring of Dreyman's apartment. The film even finds time for blips of humor, such as the thorough reports documenting the most intimate (and inessential) details of their subjects' activities. Conversely, it's also interesting to observe how the monitored would take measures to sidestep suspected spying. It's a tantalizing game of cat and mouse except for the fact that people's lives were on the line in these scenarios.
The film's greater impact, though, is as a dramatic study of the characters and their circumstances. Ostensibly the bad guy, at least at first, Wiesler's transformation from a hardline member of the Stasi to a sympathizer with those he is surveilling is where THE LIVES OF OTHERS is strongest. In a delicate performance the stone-faced Mühe conveys Wiesler's crumbling fortitude as he invests everything he has in the lives of Dreyman and Sieland. With little to no life of his own, how could he not become tangled up in the welfare of these people leading lives he could only wish he had?
Much is made of changing hearts and minds in times of war. In being privy to lifestyles and ideas he is told are wrong, Wiesler is confronted with a decision that he may believe to be right but which will also lead to certain ruin for him. The Stasi may have desired to know everything about the lives of others, but what it couldn't know, or what it may have feared being known, is that the very thing they were trying to squash offered the hope that would be their undoing.