Pining for the good old days of the Cold War? In many ways life was simpler back then: much more black and white than shades of grey. You can relive it in The Lives of Others, a German film that is worth the minor hassle of watching it with subtitles. In 1984 for those living in East Germany, it was just more glorious socialism, which meant everyone was under suspicion and the Stasi (secret police, East Germany’s equivalent of the KGB) likely had a file on you.
The Stasi were so good at eavesdropping that they could bug your apartment in just twenty minutes, which is what happens to Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch), a successful and handsome playwright. His crime? Well, that’s the part of the peculiar way the Stasi operates. Dreyman is actually a loyal socialist, but his girlfriend, the excellent actress Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck) is coveted by the Minister of Culture Bruno Hempf (Thomas Thieme). Therefore, Dreyman must be investigated. It seems likely there must be something disloyal about him. He is a playwright, after all, and sometimes hangs around suspected dissidents. Plus he’s been reading Bertolt Brecht.
Ulrich Mühe (Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler), an icy but respected professor of Stasi interrogation techniques, is pulled from the classroom and given the assignment to bug Dreyman’s apartment. He has to find evidence proving his disloyalty, or at least something that raises suspicions. Mühe has mastered the art of suppressing all signs of humanity. Life as a Stasi operative means giving up a few things, like having a real love life, which seems to wear on him when he gets his regular visits from his employer’s prostitute. Otherwise, except for his blank and often haunted look, Mühe seems to be living a pretty good life, with an attractive and modern apartment in East Berlin. For twelve hours a day he can be found in the attic above Dreyman’s apartment, listening closely on his headphones and banging details of Dreyman’s personal life into a manual typewriter, including details of his love life that make it into the journal. (“Presumably, they then had intercourse.”)
It turns out to be a tough assignment for Mühe for a variety of reasons. First, Dreyman is a handsome and genuinely nice man, pushing forty. Gentle, humane, cultured, interesting but not overbearing, it’s easy to understand why he’d attract the beautiful and attractive actress Christa-Maria Sieland. The spy Mühe finds himself attracted to her as well after watching her perform in one of Dreyman’s plays. Listening to their intimate conversations from the privacy of the attic, he cannot help but empathize with those he is preying upon. Unlike the Minister of Culture, he is not envious of Dreyman’s good fortune with women. Rather overhearing their private liaisons only makes him realize how empty his soul is, and how impossible it is for him to be an authentic human being.
What you get in this movie is an understated but surprisingly moving film cast in the last years of the German Democratic Republic. The call of the West was hard to silence in East Berlin, with the Berlin Wall so close and with TV and radio signals so easily picked up. Eventually, Dreyman’s sympathetic friends smuggle him an illicit typewriter, which he uses to chronicle suicides of prominent East German artists as a result of Stasi oppression. Eventually the manuscript is smuggled to the west and published in Der Spiegel. The hunt is then on to find its author, and Dreyman is a prime suspect.
This movie is blessed with a top-notch cast. The best performances come from the lead actors playing Dreyman, Mühe and Sieland. Surprisingly, it is Wiesler’s performance playing the steely and conflicted Agent Mühe that both grabs you and becomes hard to watch. Can a man as deep into the Stasi as him find some semblance of soul and compassion? It’s worth renting this movie to find out how Mühe manages to deal with these terrible conflicts, and the price he will pay as the Cold War draws to a close.
Thankfully the movie does not end with the tearing down of the Berlin Wall, but takes us into a denouement instead wherein Dreyman slowly puts together the puzzle of those years, greatly aided by a vast archive of Stasi files and Mühe’s unmuzzled ex-boss, who he encounters at the theater. Dreyman will learn the price that someone else paid to protect him, and find a unique way to say thank you.
If you avoid foreign films because of subtitles, make an exception for The Lives of Others. 3.3 out of four stars.