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  The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen)
Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck

Laure Thomas
posted 3 May 2007

This is one of those films for which the review should simply be: ‘you must see this’. It depicts a slice of an enviable life in one of the least likely settings – Communist East Germany under the eye of the Stasi. Indeed what is precious about this life – the love, the artistic creativity – is gradually corrupted by the regime. And it is up to the one man who has come to realise how precious this life is to go against all his earlier prejudices to protect it.

Set in the mid-1980s in East Berlin, this young director's film comes to life and takes you there. Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck must have been 16-years-old in 1989 when the Berlin Wall was torn down. The fall of Communism and the reunificaiton of Germany that followed are the most significant events of the last 50 years in Europe. What an amazing impact this momentous event must have had on young Florian. It is clear watching The Lives of Others that those questions – what must life have been like on the other side? How did people cope? How did they keep going and interact? How did they quell their desire for freedom? – have been on his mind for some time.

Das Leben der Anderen (which translates literally as 'the life of others' - singular) is about the life shared by socialist playwright, Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch), the ‘only non-subversive writer in East Germany’, and his actress partner Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck). They are the others and this is their life. The perspective from which their life is seen is unique to the Deutsche Demokratishe Republik: Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe) is the secret police official ordered to spy on them by the culture minister. This corrupt and sleazy government figure would like Christa-Maria for himself and is hoping to rid himself of a love rival by having the playwright’s life examined by the Stasi.

Operation ‘Laszlo’ (referring in a clin d'oeil to Bogart's love rival in Casablanca) brings Wiesler into Georg and Christa-Maria's intimate world, and demonstrates just how closely the authorities were listening in East Berlin. As the Wiesler's colleague who monitors the listening station at nights puts it: 'I prefer spying on artists...' Their lives are indeed infinitely more enticing than that of the Stasi officers, who were more often despised and feared.

Before he knows it Wiesler is in love. Not just with the enchanting Martina Gedeck, but with 'Laszlo' himself, with the couple’s cultured life spent with friends and the pursuit of art. However, what he comes to most envy, as his disappointment with the corruption of the regime mounts, is Dreyman's lyrical faith in socialism. His writing is not so much repressed as hopeful that the system can work. As their world begins to crumble around them, it is this, as well as the lovely actress, that Mühe is touched by and starts to protect. His acting is incredibly powerful, using only minimal changes in facial expression most of the time to convey his feelings about the couple.

And this is what makes the film work. This is at the core a tragedy which could have suffered from one-dimensional characters, but on the contrary they develop fully: they cry but also laugh, they feel disgust and desire, they gather and are merry but are also alone and miserable, they grieve and rebel, die and live on. There is no Hollywood happy ending, but the film ends on a sense of faith in humankind, as if to say it will prevail; it will break through whatever manacles eventually.

 

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