Today we take a thrilling trip to pre-unification Berlin, courtesy of Ceilidh Mapes’ review of the film Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others).
German cinema has experienced something of a blossoming over the past decade with films like Goodbye Lenin!, The Baader-Meinhof Komplex and Downfall, but Das Leben der Anderen (in German with English subtitles) is undoubtedly the pinnacle of this resurgence, having won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 2007. It is a poignant, suspenseful thriller where the basest of motives – jealousy and greed – are disguised under the banner of political righteousness. At the same time, it is also a haunting drama about the power of love and friendship, as well as high art and culture, to enrich and humanize our existence.
Set in East Berlin in 1984, the plot centers around Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Muhe), a cold, unemotional, exemplary member of the Stasi. On the orders of party big-wig Minister Bruno Hempf (Thomas Thieme), Wiesler’s latest mission is to monitor Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) – an idealistic playwright in good standing with the party and his beautiful, actress girlfriend, Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck). But Wiesler soons learns that Christa-Maria is secretly, although unwillingly, involved with Hempf and that his job is, in reality, to find – or fabricate – evidence to incriminate and remove the minister’s rival.
However, following the blacklisting of a more liberal playwright friend, Dreyman realizes it is no longer enough for him to use his position as a party favorite to plead for clemency for other artists, but that he must stand up in a more concrete way to a regime he has previously been loyal to, and to blow open the shadowy, secret world of the GDR to the rest of the world.
Simultaneously, from his voyeuristic position Wiesler is able to observe a warm, loving relationship for the first time, and he begins to soften. His cold professional shell is thawed by the love he witnesses and the art – both literary and musical – that he is exposed to. Von Donnersmarck manages to paint a very sympathetic portrait of a very unsympathetic character, who finds himself committing what would have been serious crimes, in order to defend the couple that he has come to care for. Unbeknownst to Dreyman or Sieland, Wiesler weaves himself into the fabric of their lives and we watch as the once passive observer becomes a very active participant in life, even if it is not his own.
Meanwhile, the tragic figure of Christa-Maria is little more than a fly caught in the web of Hempf’s machinations. She is manipulated into a betrayal that, despite Wiesler’s best efforts, has tragic consequences, and ultimately, he is unable to save Dreyman and Sieland from themselves. We watch, helpless, as these parallel lives converge, intertwine, and ultimately collide, in what is the most perfect ending of any film I have ever seen. An ending that will resonate powerfully with you, long after the credits have ended.
Check the WRL catalog for Das Leben der Anderen