The year is 1984. It is a bleak early spring day in East Berlin outside the apartment of playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch). While the dramatist is away, a nondescript van parks outside. Suddenly, a group of several men emerges, briskly enters the building, picks Dreyman’s lock and invades his residence. With stereotypical German efficiency (synchronized watches and all), they proceed to place small microphones and cameras in all his rooms, then link these devices to a portable control center in the attic complete with closed circuit television and audio tapes. As the team finalizes their operation and leaves, their leader Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Muehe) notices that Dreyman’s neighbor is curiously watching from her peephole. Wiesler confronts the woman: “One word of this and Masha loses her place at the university.”
The scene is one of the most powerful in writer/director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s Oscar-Winning The Lives of Others. This terrifying scene demonstrates the methods of manipulation, intimidation and surveillance the German Democratic Republic (GDR, the official name for the former Socialist East Germany) used to a terrifyingly efficient and effective degree before German Reunification. At its height, the GDR’s secret police, termed the Stasi, employed 90,000 officers and used as many as 175,000 civilian informants to monitor a country whose population barely reached 17 million. One can argue that other states have used more brutal methods to control their population, but it is hard to find a country that has treated these practices as such an integral part of the government’s functions more so than the GDR.
The Lives of Others builds off of this tense environment. The film’s plot revolves around the strange relationship of trust, distrust and deceit that develops between the playwright Dreyman, his girlfriend Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck) and Wiesler, the Stasi officer in charge of monitoring them. Wiesler is a respected Stasi officer, who, lacking self confidence, finds his purpose by serving as the Communist Party’s “Shield and Sword.” Ever the true cynic, Wiesler agrees with German Culture Minister Hempf (Thomas Thieme) that Dreyman — a writer who is loyal to the GDR — is too good to be true and must be monitored for everyone’s good.
Events start to unravel the strange “three’s company too” arrangement between the couple and Wiesler. Christa-Maria, while always remaining supportive of Dreyman, enters an affair with Minister Hempf, believing it to be the only way to advance her career as an actor. Dreyman decides to write a “subversive” article on the high suicide rate of the GDR and publish it in the West. However, just as Wiesler discovers the information to destroy Dreyman, he also becomes disillusioned with the GDR. Wiesler, a loyal follower of the state, sees the GDR crumbling under its gigantic bureaucracy populated by bickering and self-serving ministers. Wiesler finds himself at a crossroads — to serve the state as usual and turn in Dreyman or to use his position to help the writer whose goals are genuinely well-intentioned.
The Lives of Others is a bold film. Up to now, most German cinema has portrayed the GDR in a patronizing tone as “the little socialist state that couldn’t.” It reflects on Germany’s Ostalgie movement, nostalgically remembering government-sponsored food programs and television as well as Trabant cars. For 40 years, many Germans worked for and participated with the GDR, and it is understandably difficult to label something that formed such a major part of people’s lives as inherently wrong. However, The Lives of Others has the courage to take a strong position in condemning the culture of fear that dominated the GDR. As demonstrated in the scene mentioned at the beginning of this review, the terrifying truth brought to light by The Lives of Others lies not in the methods of the Stasi, but in how quickly the citizenry complies with their practices.