In 1984 East Berlin, an agent of the secret police conducting surveillance on a writer and his lover finds himself becoming absorbed into their lives.
It should be no surprise that “The Lives of Others” is set in the year 1984. The comparisons that could be made between this film and George Orwell’s most famous novel are vast; from the story itself, to the characters, even the world. It feels as if Big Brother is watching over all of it.
I had seen this film once before and absolutely loved it (I picked up a copy on Blu Ray shortly after that first viewing), but it had been a few years since I’d watched it. With our German series under weigh, I knew that I wanted to revisit a few German films that I knew I loved, but I hadn’t yet reviewed for this site. I must admit that the film actually hit me harder the second time- there were a few moments that I was close to tears, and a few other scenes where I scarcely breathed because the situation was so tense. This film is a masterpiece of suspense and emotional turmoil, but it’s also a brilliantly conceived portrait of a terrifying world.
I remember when the NSA/ Edward Snowden scandal broke there were a few differing opinions on the topic; either you were outraged (though not entirely surprised) that the government had been keeping tabs on you (as I was), or, you shrugged it off as if it was no big deal. “I’ve got nothing to hide,” was one of the most common things I heard stated. “If the government wants to spy on me they’ll probably be pretty bored.” To me, that kind of nonchalance about this very serious issue is just as terrifying as finding out that the government is spying on us.
Sure, you might not have anything to hide now, but what happens when suddenly your friendly neighbor, whom occasionally talked brashly about the government, just disappears and no one goes looking for him? What happens when your wife or daughter starts getting approached by public officials and blackmailed for sex? What happens when innocent protesters end up detained in windowless prison cells for months? These are not situations I’ve made up to scare you; these are things that have happened and will happen again. If we don’t keep those in power in check, it will happen in our own country.
To the people that approach the idea of surveillance states with lackadaisical ambivalence, I think they need to see movies like “The Lives of Others” or “4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days”; they need to read books like 1984 and Fahrenheit 451 (speaking of which, check out Michael’s review of HBO’s “Fahrenheit 451”). This issue is not one we should approach with a shrug; it’s an issue we need to fight, tooth and nail, with every scrap of energy we can muster.
Anyways, that is why I personally love this movie and think it’s a masterpiece (my second viewing has cemented its place in my top 100 films of all time), but from a cinematic standpoint, this movie is absolutely incredible as well.
This review will probably contain a fair amount of spoilers, so read at your own risk. As far as a recommendation goes; yes, you should see this movie. For further analysis, see below!
Making Love and Art Under a Watchful Eye
Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Muhe, “Funny Games (1997)”) is an officer with the Stasi, the German secret police. After Wiesler attends a play written by Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch, “Bridge of Spies”) he suggests to his boss Anton Grubitz (Ulrich Tukur, “Solaris (2002)”) that despite his apparent loyalty to the socialist party Greorg might be harboring some ill will towards it. Gerd himself oversees the bugging and surveillance of the apartment, and as his surveillance continues, from weeks into months, Gerd finds himself drawn into the lives of Georg and his lover Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck, “The Good Shepherd”), whom, Gerd soon learns, is being blackmailed by Minister Bruno Hempf (Thomas Thieme, “Downfall”). After the suicide of Georg’s blacklisted writer friend, Georg finds his relationship with the socialist party is starting to strain.
I think the thing that I love most about this film is the characters and their relationships to one another. The relationships in this world are all strained to the point where no one can really trust anyone, and because of that, each relationship takes on multiple levels of complexity. Some of these characters never even share a scene together, but some of those relationships, though tenuous, are more important than the relationships of a more intimate nature.
When we first meet Gerd, he’s explaining to a class the ways to go about properly surveying someone. At first glance he seems all for this world he’s helped to build; he trains his students with a watchful eye, making note of those that would and wouldn’t make the best agents. Gerd’s character is the most complex one in this film. When Gerd suggests to his boss that Georg be surveyed, his boss at first seems to wonder why, saying that Georg has shown nothing but positivity for the ideals of the party. Eventually, however, Gerd’s boss is persuaded, believing that perhaps Gerd has picked up on something that he had not seen. For the first few scenes of surveillance, Gerd almost seems to be enjoying his work, even the dirtier parts of it. There’s one scene, for example, where Gerd and a team of agents bug Georg’s apartment, and the neighbor across the hall realizes what’s happening. Gerd simply walks across the hall, rings the doorbell, calls her by her name, and tells her that if her she wants her daughter to get into university then she should keep her mouth shut about what she’s seen. This would be a moment of sheer terror for anyone living in those circumstances, and the icy casualness with which Gerd asserts that he can do anything to ruin this woman’s life speaks to just how common this type of occurrence was. That scene is a brilliant bit of both character development and worldbuilding.
Where Gerd’s character really starts to take on layers of complexity is when he starts to watch Christa-Maria, Georg’s girlfriend. One night, after he witnesses Christa-Maria getting out of Minister Bruno’s car (having just been blackmailed for sex), he decides to open Georg’s eyes to the injustices that are happening right in front of him, but which Georg has thus far been blind to. So why does Gerd do this? Why does he let Georg know that his girlfriend is being blackmailed for sex when Georg is powerless to stop it? To understand Gerd’s motivation completely, I believe we have to go back to after party for Georg’s play he attended in the beginning.
“Writers are engineers of the human soul.”
After Gerd attends the play, he goes to a party where the cast and crewmembers are all celebrating their performance. Bruno Hempf compliments Georg and tells him that “Writers are engineers of the soul”, a quote, someone is quick to point out, that came from Joseph Stalin. I find this quote a bit ironic, mostly because A) I agree with that statement, and it’s rare I find myself agreeing with Stalin, and B) because it came from Stalin himself (apparently the original statement was from Olesha, but then Stalin later reused the saying). Stalin’s view of that statement was probably a bit more tainted than Gerd’s view. Stalin probably looked at this statement and realized that good writers, writers who can create and convey powerful ideas, are the kinds of people that change history, and if you’ve got a few great propaganda writers, you can change the public’s perception of just about anything.
In my opinion, this statement works as Gerd’s call to action.
Gerd’s story stretches back before the first reel of this film begins. We get an idea that he’s been with the Stasi for close to twenty years. At this point he knows the Stasi’s ins and outs, he knows the just how far their reach is, and he’s even had a hand in crafting how far that reach goes. In a way, he’s worked himself into a corner and he knows it. He knows enough about the system to know that his every move is being watched, and he also knows enough about the system that he could, potentially, find a way around the surveillance… should he ever choose to do so.
When Gerd ‘meets’ Georg, this artist with a brilliant voice but whom is totally blind to the injustices around him, he realizes that this is his chance to make a difference. He can’t stand up and shout against the government because all that will do is get him thrown in jail, but he can slowly start to push a man with an established voice towards his own newly realized ideals, and that’s just what he does.
When Gerd rings the doorbell, prompting Georg to see that the minister is taking advantage of his girlfriend he’s done a couple of things; he’s taken a firm step forward, a step against the socialist government, and he’s also given Georg a push in that same direction.
Georg himself is another absolutely brilliant character. When we meet him, he is essentially the star writer of the socialist party, renown for his prose and wit. He seems blinded to the atrocities that are being committed around him because his life is, for the most part, untouched by those injustices and he’s able to live his life in willful ignorance.
In a way, I think Georg’s character is an embodiment of those people who say things like “Well, my life is pretty boring, the government can listen to me all they want.” Unfortunately, I think most of the human populous is like this; though we may hear about bad things happening to people around us (Hong Kong Extradition Protests, the Black Lives Matter movement) many of us are happy to ignore those injustices as long as it doesn’t affect us directly. Georg’s journey is one of awakening, though that awakening comes at a terrible price.
The third of our main characters, Christa-Maria, is the most tragic. She becomes a stand in for the innocent one among us who falls prey to the bureaucratic machine. When we meet her, we learn that she is being blackmailed by one of the ministers for some trivial crime. As the story goes on, and Georg finds himself pulling away from the party, Christa-Maria finds herself torn between her love of Georg and her unwillingness to go to jail. This is where the real heartbreak enters this story, because the stakes are so incredibly real. In a society built on mistrust, it’s inevitable that pure and honest love will be one of the first casualties.
I want to avoid spoiling the climax of the film, which, in this reviewer’s opinion is a beautifully ironic and tragic scene that will stick with me for quite some time.
If you couldn’t tell by the review, I think this film is incredibly well crafted. It’s intense and intelligent, subtle and heartbreaking, and more than anything it’s important because it reminds us of how close we are to returning to a world that is as corrupt and hopeless as the one depicted here.
Review Written By: