The Soviet bloc was a curious place. Officials were so curious about what I, a harmless American, was doing during five months in Soviet Georgia that they opened my mail, searched my room, shadowed my steps, and recruited informers to report on my activities (I learned this from one of the informers). Among members of the Warsaw Pact, the German Democratic Republic probably maintained the most thorough system of surveillance; out of a population of 17 million, about 100,000 were employees of the state security force known as the Stasi and another 200,000 served as informers.
It was a system that abolished privacy, championing snooping as a civic virtue. Everyone spied on the lives of others.
The Lives of Others begins in 1984, with a lesson in surveillance.
In a class for Stasi novices, Captain Gerd Wiesler (Mühe) plays a taped confession that demonstrates how to extract information from a recalcitrant suspect. In a new case, Wiesler sets out to find dirt on Georg Dreyman (Koch), a successful and gregarious playwright. Though Dreyman counts dissidents among his circle of intellectuals, he has never given the regime reason to doubt his own loyalty. Nevertheless, Wiesler is convinced he can uncover incriminating secrets, but he is troubled that the reason Lieutenant Colonel Anton Grubitz (Tukur) assigns him to monitor Dreyman is in order to ingratiate himself with a powerful government minister. And that minister’s own interest in the matter is lecherous; he wants to pry Christa-Maria Sieland (Gedeck), the beautiful actress Dreyman lives with, away from the playwright and appropriate her for himself.
Wiesler, by contrast, is an idealist who plays Peeping Tom in order to serve the cause of socialism. After installing listening devices throughout Dreyman’s apartment, Wiesler monitors everything that goes on, including careless conversations, recitations of poetry, and copious sex between Dreyman and Sieland. Alone in the building’s attic, eavesdropping on the lives of others, the solitary snooper becomes a secret sharer with the snooped, complicit in treachery against the government he serves.
Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s first feature, The Lives of Others is a taut thriller constructed out of intricate layers of deception and self-deception. One of its most telling moments occurs in the Stasi cafeteria, when Grubitz overhears a low-ranking agent make a joke about East German leader Erich Honecker. The colonel glowers at the petrified young man and announces that the joke has ended his career. Then, in a terrifying display of the cruelty of arbitrary power, Grubitz laughs and delivers his own joke about Honecker.
An unnecessary epilogue moves the story beyond the fall of the Berlin Wall and blunts the shock of what came before. But police states grow back as rapidly as poisonous mushrooms and in 2007, the year that von Donnersmarck’s feature won the foreign-film Oscar, the Bush administration has been invading the lives of others with warrantless eavesdropping.
“Who’d have thought our state security was so incompetent?” asks Dreyman, believing, naively, that he has escaped scrutiny. Everyone is being watched, but this unnerving film deserves to be.