This week at SFC: The Lives of Others
Film starts 8:15 pm. Doors open 7:30 pm.
Thursday August 30th
The Lives of Others
(Florian H Von Donnersmarck/2006/Germany/138')
You know within minutes of watching The Lives of Others, the debut feature that brought writer-director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck an Oscar for the best foreign language film of 2006, that you are in confident, authoritative hands. The film opens with an interrogation in East Berlin in 1984 at the temporary detention centre of the German Democratic Republic's Ministerium für Staatssicherheit (the Ministry for State Security), better known as the Stasi. Forty years earlier, the Stasi's job was being done by the Gestapo, which was active for a mere dozen years and employed around 45,000 agents with some 160,000 registered informants. The Stasi lasted 40 years in only half of the country, employed 100,000 full-time workers and had, so this movie tells us, 400,000 informants.
The interrogator in this initial scene is Captain Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Muhe), a lean, humourless man seeking a confession from a political prisoner. There is no direct physical torture (though we know there was no form of punishment or persuasion the Stasi balked at). But the accused is made to sit on his hands and is forced to stay awake. Wiesler informs his victim that merely to question the probity of the Stasi is itself a serious crime. When the necessary confession has been obtained, Wiesler places the fabric from the seat the prisoner has been sitting on in a bottle to retain the offender's odour for the use of tracker dogs. Wiesler then uses the tape recording of this scene to lecture recruits in the art of interrogation. While indoctrinating them in his form of mad logic, he's asked a question about the possible innocence of a victim; Wiesler puts a little cross beside the questioner's name. At the end of his lecture, he's buttonholed by a suspiciously hearty old schoolfriend, Lieutenant-Colonel Anton Grubitz (Ulrich Tukur), now head of the Stasi's Cultural Department.
The colonel asks Wiesler to join him in the staff canteen, where he hears a lieutenant mention a joke about President Honecker. The embarrassed young man is forced to repeat it and we know (and two hours later actually discover) that the joker's career has been seriously blighted. Similar incidents lead to jail sentences in Milan Kundera's novel The Joke and Emir Kusturica's film When Father Was Away on Business. This sense of social unease and constant suspicion, which informs the whole of the film, leads on to the next scene: Grubitz takes Wiesler to the theatre and suggests he take an interest in a potentially dissident playwright, Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch), whose beautiful girlfriend (Martina Gedeck) is appearing in his new play. It is first hinted at, and then made clear, that an influential minister (Thomas Thieme) has designs on the actress and intends to use the Stasi to tarnish the playwright. Wiesler is assigned to the case by his old friend and proceeds to bug the writer's flat and put him under 24-hour surveillance.
We then see the Stasi at work, doggedly recording everything for the organisation's files, with entries in their log such as (noting the end of a birthday party) 'unwrap presents and then presumably have intercourse'. Their targets, however, are largely innocent of any plans to undermine the state. The theatre people are dedicated socialists who merely seek artistic freedom and a certain licence to criticise and exercise democratic rights.
In John le Carre's The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, the Stasi man targeted for destruction is a dedicated true believer, while the man being kept in place by MI6 is a corrupt, time-serving career man. Similarly here, the wily, unprincipled Grubitz is manipulating the honest communist Wiesler, who really does believe what everyone in the Stasi professes, that 'we are the party's sword and shield'. But like Winston Smith in Nineteen Eighty-Four, the lonely, essentially decent Wiesler comes to doubt what he is doing and to suspect the patriotism of those around him. Listening in on the playwright and his girlfriend, he develops human sympathies for people his superior believes to be suffering from a sickness known as 'anthropocentrism'. He reads Brecht. A little boy he meets on the lift insults the Stasi, but he doesn't inquire, as he should, about the child's father. He begins to make minor interventions, protecting the couple's privacy; then acts in a serious, protective manner that puts his own life and career in danger.
The film turns into a suspenseful thriller with a complex and powerful moral drive. Were there people like Wiesler in the Stasi? Some of its victims say not. However, von Donnersmarck and Ulrich Muhe persuade us of that possibility without suggesting such figures were common. The Lives of Others subtly evokes a vindictive society that exists by turning citizens against each other in the interests of national unity and collective security. It serves as a major warning to ourselves and our elected leaders about where overzealousness and a lack of respect for individuals and their liberties can lead.
The film has a remarkable coda, set in 1992 after the Berlin Wall has fallen and the Stasi files were opened to the public. When Dreyman the playwright visits the former Stasi headquarters, a trolley is required to bring in his bulky files. Reading them provides him with something like the walk down a nightmarish memory lane that British historian and student of Eastern European affairs Timothy Garton Ash describes in his fascinating book The File: A Personal History, which resulted from examining the dossier that the Stasi had opened on him in 1981 when he was doing research in Berlin for a book on the Third Reich. Dreyman finds some illuminating surprises in his files. He also meets the lecherous minister, who, like many of his kind, performed a Vicar of Bray act and recreated themselves in a new Germany as many Nazi sympathisers had done 50 years before.