Germans and commies and spies, oh my!

by Beacon Staff • February 14, 2007

In his debut effort as director and screenwriter, von Donnersmarck explores a tumultuous Germany divided by the Berlin Wall, and the disturbing surveillance efforts made by the Stasi (secret police) in order to preserve and enforce loyalty within the German Democratic Republic (East Berlin).,Spies-they're everywhere. They were particularly prevalent in 1984 East Berlin, the setting of Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's enthralling espionage thriller The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen), an Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Film.

In his debut effort as director and screenwriter, von Donnersmarck explores a tumultuous Germany divided by the Berlin Wall, and the disturbing surveillance efforts made by the Stasi (secret police) in order to preserve and enforce loyalty within the German Democratic Republic (East Berlin). At the center of the plot is Captain Gerd Wiesler, a Stasi officer driven by the principles and patriotism of his government.

In a more than memorable performance given by German actor Ulrich Muhe, Wiesler opens the film teaching the startling interrogation tactics he uses to break down those suspected of defying the GDR.

It's not that he prides himself in smoking out all of the potential Benedict Arnolds of the German socialist regime; it's that he lives for and is ultimately defined by his mother government. Even Wiesler's rigid, compact body and general appearance reciprocate a theme of strict devotion to the GDR.

When Anton Grubitz, (Ulrich Tukur) the Captain's superior, suggests they attend a local theatre performance for self-promotion, Wiesler notices certain oddities about the playwright, GDR loyalist Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch).

Despite the writer's known socialist status, the practiced captain smells a rat. Hence, the storyline intensifies when the actions of the playwright and his actress girlfriend, Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck) are deemed suspicious by Capt. Wiesler. Upon further investigation, it is decided that Wiesler himself will set up surveillance shop in an abandoned warehouse near the couple's apartment.

It is in this secluded and heavily hired environment that Wiesler first discovers what it is to be human. He has spent the entirety of his career on the other side, using strategies and asking questions to elicit specific answers. If he gets the wrong answer, he prods and pries until he digs up the right one. However, this new position of secret surveillance restricts him to only observation, and in this process he becomes entranced by the interactions between the sultry artisan couple on the other end of his high-frequency headphones.

Sebastian Koch offers a subtly brilliant performance as Dreyman, the writer, in a state of political and emotional turmoil. He is slow to criticize Wiesler's precious government, even when behind closed doors. Dreyman wants desperately to have some shred of faith in the GDR. It is only after the suicide of a blacklisted friend and mentor that he begins to write for a Western (anti-government) publication.

It is here that Wiesler's character changes drastically. For the first time in his life and career, he acts out of pure heart and instinct, choosing to sacrifice his job, his life, for the two intersecting lives he has come to know so intimately. The captain recognizes depth, character and conviction: the layers of humanity he could not reach by interrogation.

Sharp cinematography and simple yet driving dialogue only enhance this absorbing spy game. The cast, led by Muhe, offers an all-around solid performance that is both gripping and humane. Von Donnermarck's rookie effort masterfully partners politics with heartfelt personality.

Lives of Others received a record-setting 11 nominations in 2006 from the German Film Awards, the German equivalent of the Academy Awards. Additionally, it received Best Film at the European Film Awards and was recently named Best Foreign Film by the Los Angeles Film Critics Association.