The devil and the detail in the DDR

The Lives of Others, a very human tale of omnipresent surveillance in East Germany, is as taut as a thriller.

Emily Hill

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The problem with reviewing a great film that relies heavily on plot for its effect, is that you don’t want to give anything away, lest you spoil the effect of what was, for you, unexpected. The Lives of Others, which won the Oscar for best foreign language film in 2006, is just such a film. Part of the joy of watching it lies in its accumulation of details, its peculiar neatness and gradual slotting together, which finally jolts you with a complete sense of inevitability. And you can rant on about camera angles as much as you like, but nothing quite sums them up like the angle itself.

The film is set in East Germany in 1984, a significant year. In the West, Orwell’s dystopia had failed to materialise. In East Germany, still living under the lights of Socialism perverted, a network of 100,000 state security agents and 200,000 informants were keeping the populace obedient, and its thoughts repressed.

The Lives of Others opens in a lecture theatre. The film’s protagonist, methodical Stasi security captain Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe), produces a tape recording of a state interrogation. The dissident is a delicate-looking man, accused of having helped a friend escape to the West. He is instructed to sit on his hands as he is questioned. He is questioned again and again and sticks to his story. He is kept awake. After 48 hours he starts to cry. Wiesler stops the tape. An innocent man, he says, becomes indignant at the injustice he suffers the longer he is kept awake, whereas a guilty man’s resolve begins to crumble. He will break. He responds to threats and betrays his confidences. An innocent man, he says, sticks to his story but can vary the details, telling it in any way he knows how; but a guilty man sticks rigidly to rehearsed lines and does not deviate.

These are the tests, explains Wiesler, and the interrogated man must sit on his hands so his sweat trickles on to the chair fabric, which will be kept for the dogs, in case he tries to run. A boy sitting on the back row fingers such a technique as inhuman. Wiesler searches for his position in the classroom and marks a red cross next to the boy’s name.

Wiesler is cold, efficient and gripped by a belief in the inherent righteousness of what he is doing. He is a true believer, weeding out the enemies of the state. The Lives of Others concentrates on how his views of the dictatorship he lives under come to change.

Taken to the premiere of a play by his friend Grubitz, the head of the Stasi’s Cultural Department, Wiesler comes to be detailed to the case of its playwright, Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch). Believing the playwright to be arrogant, Wiesler suspects that Dreyman might have dissident tendencies – despite his reputation as a staunch Socialist – and adopts the case in his usual deadened and methodical manner. He has Dreyman’s flat bugged and sits in the attic, night after night, listening to the lives of Dreyman and his girlfriend, the famed actress Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Geddick), unfold. But he becomes absorbed by the ideas and the people before him, which open up long-dead possibilities. He begins to write a fiction himself and, at certain moments, manipulates their movements like a maestro.

To say anything more would be to give away the unfurling which is the main joy of the film, but there are many incidents, small set-pieces, that break into the pace as it ratchets up to its conclusions, striking you with how well they fit long after you’ve left the cinema. The tone of suspicion and constant fear is ably maintained by first time writer-director Florian Henckel von Donnermarck. Ulrich Mühe’s performance as Wiesler is quite remarkable – as is Martina Geddick’s as the beautiful but insecure actress Sieland, the ‘pearl of the DDR’, who does not want to lose her standing.

Prior to its release, The Lives of Others was frequently discussed as militating against the wave of Eastern nostalgia, or Ostalgie, sweeping East Germany. Young people who do not remember what life was like under the DDR are apparently now wearing t-shirts printed with the DDR logo, wearing Erich Honecker masks in Berlin nightclubs and watching programmes that showcase kitsch from communist times: the fibreglass-bodied cars and undrinkable wine which would once have generated a rueful derision, now seem quite cool and alternative. Good Bye Lenin! was the cinematic embodiment of this trend, a comedy in which the Berlin Wall falls whilst a diehard Socialist matriarch is in a coma. When she wakes up, any shock could kill her, so her family tries to keep up the pretence of life under the DDR, with its horrible food and patriotic birthday songs, to protect her from the sudden influx of the West.

But the comparison is not a good one. Good Bye Lenin! was a pleasurable enough film, but it tailed off miserably towards the end. The Lives of Others is a different breed of film altogether. It may show up the grim realities of life in the East, but in the main it’s a rattling good piece of storytelling, which needs its setting quite as much as it exposes it. Part thriller, part tragedy, it is taut in the way a Hitchcock film is taut, no line of unnecessary dialogue, no extraneous scene survives the final cut – but it also has a deep streak of humanism. The last thing to die in a human, the film’s refrain goes, is hope. And in Gerd Wiesler, clinical Stasi interrogator, it is this hope and basic humanity that is rekindled: the film is a triumph because it manages to project the thawing soul without resorting to shlock or sentimentality.

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