The Lives of Others (2006)

“I have to show you something: “Prison Conditions for Subversive Artists: Based on Character Profile”. Pretty scientific, eh? And look at this: “Dissertation Supervisor, A. Grubitz”. That’s great, isn’t it? I only gave him a B. They shouldn’t think getting a doctorate with me is easy. But his is first-class. Did you know that there are just five types of artists? Your guy, Dreyman, is a Type 4, a “hysterical anthropocentrist.” Can’t bear being alone, always talking, needing friends. That type should never be brought to trial. They thrive on that. Temporary detention is the best way to deal with them. Complete isolation and no set release date. No human contact the whole time, not even with the guards. Good treatment, no harassment, no abuse, no scandals, nothing they could write about later. After 10 months, we release. Suddenly, that guy won’t cause us any more trouble. Know what the best part is? Most type 4s we’ve processed in this way never write anything again. Or paint anything, or whatever artists do. And that without any use of force. Just like that. Kind of like a present.”

‘The Lives of Others’, directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck in 2006, is a German historical drama set just before and after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Ulrich Mühe plays Gerd Wiesler, a ruthless Stasi officer in East Berlin. Wiesler is given the task of monitoring the activities of a playwright called Georg Dreyman, played by Sebastian Koch, a man seemingly loyal to the communist government but who has the misfortune to be married to a woman ‘s a senior government official covets. During the course of the surveillance it becomes clear that Dreyman is beginning to have doubts about the political ideologies of his country and is making contacts across the border. At the same time, Wiesler is becoming more and more sympathetic towards his targets and withholds information from his superiors. When Dreyman’s betrayal comes to light, Wiesler is also implicated. All this has tragic consequences, particularly for Dreyman’s wife, who has been forced into informing on her husband, whilst Wiesler is demoted and, under the new regime, becomes a postman. It’s a subtle film. The drama is played out, much like Francis Ford Coppola’s ‘The Conversation’, at a distance and without action. It’s a film about listening and doubt, the central aspect being Wiesler’s slow conversation from dogmatic policeman to sympathetic doubter. This transformation happens not suddenly but through an incremental series of moments including the officer listening to classical music and, supposedly ‘hearing’ it for the first time. The change we see in Wiesler seems to be a representation of the change that occurred during the end of the Cold War, the doubts and dissatisfaction of the people slowly chipping away at the borders and walls that separated them from the west.

Would I recommend it? Yes – it’s a powerful but underplayed story about a dramatic shift in global politics. Watch in a double bill with ‘Good Bye, Lenin!’, a film set during the same period but one that takes a broader approach.

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