The voyeuristic nature of a powerful government is a theme rarely tackled in film. Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, director of the elegant and powerfully subdued “The Lives of Others,” should be commended on making a film that has timely themes without resorting to the hysterics and self-importance other directors think are the benchmarks of good filmmaking.
Wiesler (played by Ulrich Muhe), an East-German government official who specializes in surveillance and interrogation, has been assigned by his superiors to monitor a newly successful playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch), using carefully hidden microphones and a lot of patience. The reasons for his monitoring are half-baked at best: the government is ostensibly looking for any subversive activity on the playwright’s part, but Wiesler gradually begins to realize that it is simply a means of trying to manipulate Dreyman’s girlfriend (Martina Gedeck) into falling in love with the cultural minister of his country.
As Wiesler becomes more and more obsessed with the daily activities of his subjects, and as he begins to ingratiate himself into their lives, the film becomes a searing dissertation on the nature of individualism in a dictatorship, and how the former directly influences the latter. Not unlike “Pan’s Labyrinth,” which “The Lives of Others” beat out for the Foreign Film award at last month’s Oscars, the film follows characters struggling with finding their sense of self amid the chaos of totalitarianism.
Set in 1984 (an appropriate year for a film about an oppressive society), the tone of the film is one of bleak absurdity. A government spies on a man for an individual’s personal gain, resulting in the creation of a radical out of a person who only sought materialistic pleasures. The director is smart enough to play up the ridiculousness of the situation, in which the government’s own fears give rise to its enemies.
A key scene in the film features Wiesler and his friend, another government official, having lunch with some co-workers. When one worker tells a joke about socialism, Wiesler’s friend threatens disciplinary punishment for such a subversive act. After an awkward pause, Wiesler’s friend laughs and tells the other worker that he was just kidding around with him. The other worker is clearly scared, as sweat comes out of every pore in his face.
It is this sense of palpable doom and all-encompassing danger that gives “The Lives of Others” a fascinating air. The threat of violence, rather than actual violence, was what suffocated this society.
When the Berlin Wall falls towards the end of the film, the audience does not feel elation. They feel only regret and a sense of waste, which is what East Germany was ultimately created out of anyway.
“The Lives of Others” was written and directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck.
“The Lives of Others” received 3 1/2 out of 4 stars.