An engrossing Oscar-winning German thriller about spying, fear and oppression in the East Germany, in the fittingly Orwellian year of 1984.
If Good Bye Lenin!, the 2003 comedy about the collapse of the German Democratic Republic, allowed itself a somewhat more indulgent view of the past socialist regime, the opening scene of The Lives of Others would have none of that. The film begins with a chilling interrogation scene conducted by Captain Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe), the officer working for the infamous Stasi, East Germany’s Ministry for State Security. With his impassive features seemingly carved out of stone and a ruthlessly pared down life – no family, no girlfriend, no friends, no hobbies, a spartan apartment that is occasionally visited by a prostitute – colourless and rigid Wiesler looks the very face of the secret police.
Wiesler’s latest target is Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch), a charismatic and successful playwright who, at the time when many of his artistic friends are blacklisted or exiled, managed to strike a balance between toeing the party line and appealing to the western liberals. Unfortunately for Dreyman, his beautiful leading lady and girlfriend, Christa-Maria (Martina Gedeck), caught the eye of a bloated party bigwig, who is eager to dig up some dirt on the playwright as an excuse to fling him into prison. Wiesler bugs Dreyman’s bohemian book-lined apartment, intimidates a nosy neighbour into silence, and spends hours in the attic, listening to the couple and their friends. At first, he’s merely a detached voyeur, but as time passes, cracks appear and he becomes emotionally invested in the couple, whose lives make him aware of his own empty and arid existence. In turn, Dreyman is moved to break his complacent stance and speak out against the regime that destroyed its best artists (though his timing of course couldn’t have been worse).
While the main storyline makes for a gripping and tense mix of human drama and political thriller, the sinister paranoia of the times is perhaps best exemplified by a scene at the Stasi headquarters, where a careless official is sharing a joke about the party chairman in the staff canteen, not realising that a higher-up is lunching nearby. Absolutely terrified, he is forced to finish the joke by the higher-up, who at first threatens him with severe repercussions, then reassures him that he’s merely joking. It’s then revealed that the hapless official’s career is ruined anyway, all because of one poorly timed joke.
As Wiesler, Mühe gives an extraordinary performance that at times seems confined to his eyes, portraying the slow thawing of a frozen soul who comes to question the rightness of the state police he has dedicated his entire life to. His change of heart gives the film a strong redemptive core and some powerful scenes which, at the same time, are handled with an admirable restraint.