On the face of it, a movie in German with subtitles about a secret policeman in the GDR in 1984 listening in to a playwright and his girlfriend does not sound like a riveting topic. How wrong can you be? This is a spellbinding and emotional movie, one I would urge everyone to see.
The film is stark, taut and at times brutal, but the underlying humanity is beautifully etched into the shadows by director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. While it hints at loftier themes, The Lives Of Others is essentially a thriller about freedom and surveillance, and the moral dilemma facing Hauptmann Gerd Wieser as he questions silently his life as a Stasi captain destroying the lives of people who critical of the regime or who help others to escape. The objective of the Stasi, as the opening captions reveal, was to “know everything”, using all available technology, and to rule by fear.
There is one chilling moment in the movie where Oberstleutnent Anton Grubitz (Ulrich Tukur) is eating lunch in the canteen with Wieser, when on a neighbouring table a lower-ranked Stasi operative begins to tell a joke about the General Secretary of the Communist Party, effectively the dictator of the GDR, Erich Honecker, then realises a superior officer is watching. Grubitz terrifies the young man before laughing off the joke. You realise that even the secret policemen themselves are under scrutiny and could find themselves interrogated just as soon as the “subversives” they pursue for evidence of crimes against the state.
Ulrich Mühe, who ironically was watched by the Stasi in earlier years, is simply brilliant as Wieser: barely speaking for long periods but building a minutely observed portrait of a man debating the rights and wrongs of the surveillance and the implications for his life and career by failing to report the activities of playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch). Wieser’s loyalties are first compromised by his distant adoration of Dreyman’s girlfriend, actress Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck), but the further into the plot Wieser hears, the greater the risks and personal sacrifices he makes on behalf of Dreyman.
I was delighted when Marion Cotillard won her Oscar for playing Piaf so brilliantly in La Vie En Rose, but there are not nearly enough top acting Oscars awarded to non-English speaking actors in foreign films. In my view, Bruno Ganz’s terrifying portrayal of Hitler in Downfall deserved one, and so does Mühe’s Wieser.