The Lives of Others (2006)

The sterile life of a failed Stasi agent.

I was intrigued by the idea of the German film, The Lives of Others. It’s a tale of a middle-aged Stasi agent Wiesler (Ulrich Muhe) who’s assigned to monitor the private life of playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch). Set in East Germany during the Cold War, the Stasi have unlimited power to monitor (and spy) on the most intimate moments of those suspected of subversive activity. The film begins with Wiesler interrogating someone who is suspected of holding information against another. Wiesler is good at his job, and we see how he methodically questions his ‘suspect’ until he gets the information he wants. The interrogation process is cold and bureaucratic, and fear of the consequences of resistance is a key factor.

In the artistic world, playwrights, writers, and poets are effectively silenced by being blacklisted if they upset the Stasi. One of Dreyman’s closest friends, Jerska (Volkmar Kleinart) is on that list and hasn’t worked in years. Living in oblivion, Jerska is a living example of the fate that awaits anyone who challenges the system.

When the film begins, Dreyman is seen as a good, loyal East German. Nicely patriotic and complacent, he can still produce his plays since they don’t rock the system. However, Dreyman still isn’t safe from Stasi scrutiny. His girlfriend, actress Christa-Marie Sieland (Martina Gedeck) has attracted the eyes of a corpulent minister. The minister wants Christa, but Dreyman is an annoying distraction who must disappear. So Wiesler is assigned to spy on Dreyman. This means that Dreyman’s apartment is bugged, and from a vantage point, Wiesler and his assistant tune in to all aspects of Dreyman’s life.

Wiesler begins to understand the rhythms of Dreyman’s life. Wiesler listens in to Dreyman’s most intimate moments, and then he creates his reports. Over time, Wiesler moves from a bureaucratic spectatorship of Dreyman’s life to involvement as a collaborator. The film fails to adequately explain exactly why Wiesler would make this step. After all, it’s not as if he’s a Stasi newbie. He’s at the top of his profession because he’s proved again and again that he is perfectly capable of mercilessly extracting the necessary information from his victims.

The film implies that several things may motivate Wiesler: an attraction to Christa, an appreciation of art, and also the fact that he realizes (finally) that the system is corrupt. After all, the entire investigation of Dreyman in motivated by the minister’s desire for Dreyman’s woman.

All of these possible motives fail to adequately explain Wiesler’s actions. I mean, come on, this is a hardened Stasi agent who’s not about to go all soft just because he decides that art has merit after all, or that he cannot support a corrupt system. After working in the Stasi for all those years, Wiesler MUST be aware that this system is corrupt, and it’s impossible to believe that this is the first instance in which he’s participated in the surveillance of a perfectly innocent person. Without a clear motivation (and the film leaves this issue of exactly why Wiesler ‘turns’ too vague), I have a problem with the entire reformed Stasi agent idea. That said, the film is based on an intriguing premise, and it was interesting to see the Stasi in action. The post cold-war scenes raised some great questions too. The Lives of Others is in German with English subtitles and directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck.

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Filed under German, Political/social films

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