The Lives of Others (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, 2006)
German Title: Das Leben der Anderen
The critics of Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's very successful first film The Lives of Others attack it for its historical inaccuracy or the sparseness of truthfulness behind the facts that envelope the entire film. This surprise Oscar winner (beating out Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth (2006)) tells the story of a member of East Germany's Secret Police (the feared Stasi) who becomes tasked to spy on a poet who is suspected of adhering to Western ideals. Glaring for most purist historians is how von Donnersmarck marks the film with humanist pathos for the privacy-interfering Stasi, to the point of plotting out a steady path to redemption.
In interviews, Von Donnersmarck defends his films' historical accuracy or possibility by citing out several examples of Stasi who reneged on their sleazy governmental duties. At times, I question the wisdom in defending his film through factual chronicles. Is the film's downfall its inability to grasp the realities of our world's past? Is Von Donnersmarck's intention to cleanse these mini-atrocities of Communist Germany by providing a shining example of the possibility for righteousness in a society dictated by bureaucratic crab mentality? I disagree. Above all, I thought The Lives of Others is a humanist masterpiece. It is a film wherein intrinsic goodness triumphs over the fragility of the human soul. I cannot find fault in that; not in these trying times wherein a film's quality is measured by its negativity and how accurately it portrays humanity's moral downfall.
The heart of the film is certainly Ulrich Mühe's portrayal of Captain Gerd Wiesler, the Stasi agent who we initially see as stoic and sure in his duties, unwavering in the inhumanity of his interrogation techniques, morally unaffected in imparting his methods' efficiencies to young students. Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch), a successful poet, has become the target of a high-ranking official who fancies Dreyman's beautiful girlfriend and muse, stage actress Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck). Wiesler's surveillance expertise is recruited to find anything incriminating about Dreyman.
Wiesler's canvass is Dreyman's pad --- a constant meeting place for anti-Communist artists, and a love nest for Dreyman and Sieland. Wiesler's studio is the pad's darkened attic --- a pathetic setting characterized by his instruments for his trade (a bevy of surveillance equipment which is wired to each and every spot in Dreyman's pad), and at times a companion for a few minutes, his night shift replacement. Wiesler's nights aren't any different from his solitary stay above Dreyman's pad. He goes home, makes dinner for himself, at times, hires a government-sponsored prostitute who serves him properly given that he pays right and schedules an appointment. It's a routine he has learned to live with, but in a sudden burst of humanity, opts to reject; against the promises of a lucrative career within the mechanical bureaucracy.
The film's success hinges on the plausibility of Wiesler's turnabout. I thought the turnabout was satisfyingly gradual --- visually presented and paced well enough to evoke judicious amounts of pathos and vulnerability for the subject character. Von Donnersmarck aptly and gorgeously creates an atmosphere of deadened loneliness and futility against the palpable warmth of true affections and the even more engaging and rousing prospect of rebellion and freedom. It is that interconnection of Wiesler's drab and lifeless world with the one Dreyman is living in that forces Wiesler to re-think --- is his life's worth measured by what he has been tasked to do by his bureaucratic masters, or is there something more? That interconnection, although one way as it is effected through less than desirous means of discreetly invading on other people's businesses, becomes that spark that will consume him enough to change him.
The film ends rather beautifully, without the usual grandeur or narrative excesses of contemporary cinema. Wiesler, years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, chances upon the newly-released book by his former surveillance subject. He opens the book and sees a lovely surprise --- finally, he is complete and has been acknowledged. He is no longer that lonely man quietly peering and listening in a darkened attic; he has become a part of the life of another.