Photograph by Hagen Keller
Hidden triangle: Sebastian Koch and Martina Gedeck cannot escape the prying ears of a secret state listener in 'The Lives of Others.'
In 'The Lives of Others,' the all-seeing eye of Communism blinks in East Germany, 1984
By Richard von Busack
A TRUE dictatorship cuckolds every man and whores every woman. Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's brilliant The Lives of Others memorializes the excesses of East Germany in 1984, but on an intimate scale. Aspects of this film are almost a farce with the comedy missing. An actress, desired by three men, is the cause of all action. She is Christa-Maria (Martina Gedeck). Her ice-blue eye shadow is the only mark of color in one of those fetchingly weary German faces the screen gives us, like the face of Dietrich or Hildegard Neff. Her lover Georg (Sebastian Koch) is an apolitical playwright, considered safe by the government. The East German state minister Hempf (the J.T. Walsh look-alike Thomas Thieme) believes that Georg has something to hide, however, and orders the bugging of the playwright's flat. The officer tapped for the job is the sure-of-himself Capt. Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe) who has been entranced with Christa-Maria since the first time he saw her in a play.
As Wiesler listens in on the couple from a secret room in the attic of their building, something of Georg's creativity seems to grow in him. In an odd sense, the secret policeman becomes a writer, too, as he rephrases the two artists' daily life, editing it and recording it on his typewriter. Georg has a significant line: There must be some music, such as Beethoven, that would make a person good just by listening to it. Monitoring these two lives awakes some dormant compassion in Wiesler. Christa-Maria is a wreck. She takes illegal pills, possibly to deal with the guilt of her forced liaisons with Minister Hempf himself. It is likely that "Operation Lazlo"—the grandiose title of this sordid surveillance duty—is all meant to discredit Georg as Hempf's rival. Realizing this duplicity, Wiesler begins to sabotage his reports. Eventually, he tries to be a good angel to the couple, with calamitous results.
I would add that von Donnersmarck's superb depiction of the bunkerlike halls colors of the Berlin bureaucratic offices is more than just anti-Communist horse beating. In the coda, Hempf becomes a devil's advocate, claiming that the old Communist republic gave you something to push against, something to fight for. In the West, there was a certain happiness in living in a time before "history ended," to use one too-ebullient phrase about the raising of the Iron Curtain—it was the happiness of knowing there was an alternative. Once this Communist alternative was understood as state capitalism patrolled by vast armies of squealers and secret policemen, the only role left for the rest of the world was to become happy consumers: pieces of krill in the food chain. Again, The Lives of Others isn't specifically about the nature of Communism, it's about the nature of an intelligence state, about the supreme overconfidence that bungles its job and sows the very enemies it tries to contain. The film shows us how a culture of surveillance perpetuates itself, something that we are starting to learn. Thus The Lives of Others is not just a thinking-person's thriller worthy of Fritz Lang or a grim anti-comedy worthy of Billy Wilder. It is also a warning of future that is already under way.
The Lives of Others (R; 137 min.), directed and written by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, photographed by Hagen Bogdanski and starring Martina Gedeck, Sebastian Koch and Ulrich Mühe, opens Feb. 16 at Camera 7 in Campbell, CinéArts Santana Row and the Guild in Menlo Park.
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