|The Lives of Others|
Original German-language poster
|Directed by||Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck|
|Written by||Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck|
|Edited by||Patricia Rommel|
|Box office||$77.3 million|
The Lives of Others (German: Das Leben der Anderen, pronounced [das 'le:bn? de: 'andn] ) is a 2006 German drama film written and directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck marking his feature film debut. The plot is about the monitoring of East Berlin residents by agents of the Stasi, East Germany's secret police. It stars Ulrich Mühe as Stasi Captain Gerd Wiesler, Ulrich Tukur as his superior Anton Grubitz, Sebastian Koch as the playwright Georg Dreyman, and Martina Gedeck as Dreyman's lover, a prominent actress named Christa-Maria Sieland.
The film was released in Germany on 23 March 2006. At the same time, the screenplay was published by Suhrkamp Verlag. The Lives of Others won the 2006 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. The film had earlier won seven Deutscher Filmpreis awards--including those for best film, best director, best screenplay, best actor, and best supporting actor--after setting a new record with 11 nominations. It was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 64th Golden Globe Awards. The Lives of Others cost US$2 million and grossed more than US$77 million worldwide as of November 2007 .
Released 17 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, marking the end of the East German socialist state, it was the first notable drama film about the subject after a series of comedies such as Good Bye, Lenin! and Sonnenallee. This approach was widely applauded in Germany even as some criticized the humanization of Wiesler's character. The film's authenticity was considered praiseworthy given that the director grew up outside of East Germany and was 16 when the Berlin Wall fell.
In 1984 East Germany, Stasi Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe), code name HGW XX/7, is ordered to spy on the playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch), who had so far escaped state scrutiny due to his Communist views and international recognition. Wiesler and his team bug the apartment, set up surveillance equipment in an attic and begin reporting Dreyman's activities. Wiesler learns that Dreyman has been put under surveillance at the request of the Minister of Culture, Bruno Hempf (Thomas Thieme), who covets Dreyman's girlfriend, actress Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck). After an intervention by Wiesler leads to Dreyman's discovering Sieland's relationship with Hempf, he implores her not to meet him again. Sieland flees to a nearby bar where Wiesler, posing as a fan, urges her to be true to herself. She returns home and reconciles with Dreyman.
At Dreyman's birthday party, his friend Albert Jerska, a blacklisted theatrical director, gives him sheet music for Sonate vom Guten Menschen (Sonata for a Good Man). Shortly afterwards, Jerska hangs himself. A grieving Dreyman decides to publish an anonymous article in Der Spiegel, a prominent West German newsweekly. Dreyman's article accuses the state of concealing the country's elevated suicide rates. Since all East German typewriters are registered and identifiable, an editor of Der Spiegel smuggles Dreyman a miniature typewriter with a red ribbon. Dreyman hides the typewriter under a floorboard of his apartment but is seen by Sieland. When Dreyman and his friends feign a defection attempt to determine whether or not his flat is bugged, a now sympathetic Wiesler does not alert the border guards or his superior Lt. Col. Anton Grubitz (Ulrich Tukur) and the conspirators believe they are safe.
A few days later, Dreyman's article is published, angering the East German authorities. The Stasi obtain a copy, but are unable to link it to any registered typewriter. Livid at being rejected by Sieland, Hempf orders Grubitz to arrest her. She is blackmailed into revealing Dreyman's authorship of the article, although when the Stasi search his apartment, they do not find the typewriter. Grubitz, suspicious that Wiesler has mentioned nothing unusual in his daily reports of the monitoring, has him do the follow-up interrogation of Sieland. Wiesler makes Sieland reveal the typewriter's location.
Grubitz and the Stasi return to Dreyman's apartment. Sieland realises that Dreyman will know she betrayed him and flees the apartment. When Grubitz removes the floor however, the typewriter is gone - Wiesler having removed it before the search team arrived. Unaware of this, Sieland runs to the street in despair and right into the path of a truck. A shocked Dreyman runs out after her and Sieland dies in his arms. Grubitz informs Wiesler that the investigation is over and so is Wiesler's career: His remaining years with the agency will be in Department M, a dead-end position for disgraced agents. The same day, Mikhail Gorbachev is elected leader of the Soviet Union, beginning the process which will lead to the collapse of the Soviet bloc.
On 9 November 1989, Wiesler is steam-opening letters when a co-worker hears about the fall of the Berlin Wall on the radio. Realising what this means, Wiesler silently gets up and leaves the office, inspiring his co-workers to do the same.
Two years later, Hempf and Dreyman meet while attending a performance of Dreyman's play. Dreyman asks the former minister why he was never monitored. Hempf tells him that he had been under full surveillance in 1984. Surprised, Dreyman searches his apartment, finds the listening devices and rips them off the walls.
At the Stasi Records Agency, Dreyman reviews the files kept while he was under surveillance. He reads that Sieland was released just before the second search and could not have removed the typewriter. As he goes through the files, he is confused by the large amount of contradictory information, but as he reaches the final report and sees a fingerprint in red ink, he realises that the officer in charge of his surveillance – Stasi officer HGW XX/7 – had concealed his activities, including his authorship of the suicide article, and also removed the typewriter from his apartment. Dreyman tracks down Wiesler, who now works as a postman, but is unsure how to thank him and decides not to approach him.
Two years later, Wiesler passes a bookstore window display promoting Dreyman's new novel, Sonate vom Guten Menschen. He goes inside and opens a copy of the book, discovering it is dedicated "To HGW XX/7, in gratitude". Deeply moved, Wiesler buys the book. When asked if he would like the book gift-wrapped, Wiesler replies, "No, it's for me."
Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's parents were both from East Germany (originally they were from further east; the von Donnersmarcks belonged to Silesian nobility but the region was transferred to Poland from Germany after World War II). He has said that, on visits there as a child before the Berlin Wall fell, he could sense the fear they had as subjects of the state.
He said the idea for the film came to him when he was trying to come up with a scenario for a film class. He was listening to music and recalled Maxim Gorky's saying that Lenin's favorite piece of music was Beethoven's Appassionata. Gorky recounted a discussion with Lenin:
And screwing up his eyes and chuckling, [Lenin] added without mirth: But I can't listen to music often, it affects my nerves, it makes me want to say sweet nothings and pat the heads of people who, living in a filthy hell, can create such beauty. But today we mustn't pat anyone on the head or we'll get our hand bitten off; we've got to hit them on the heads, hit them without mercy, though in the ideal we are against doing any violence to people. Hm-hm--it's a hellishly difficult office!
Donnersmarck told a New York Times reporter: "I suddenly had this image in my mind of a person sitting in a depressing room with earphones on his head and listening in to what he supposes is the enemy of the state and the enemy of his ideas, and what he is really hearing is beautiful music that touches him. I sat down and in a couple of hours had written the treatment." The screenplay was written during an extended visit to his uncle's monastery, Heiligenkreuz Abbey.
Although the opening scene is set in Hohenschönhausen prison (which is now the site of a memorial dedicated to the victims of Stasi oppression), the film could not be shot there because Hubertus Knabe, the director of the memorial, refused to give Donnersmarck permission. Knabe objected to "making the Stasi man into a hero" and tried to persuade Donnersmarck to change the film. Donnersmarck cited Schindler's List as an example of such a plot development being possible. Knabe's answer: "But that is exactly the difference. There was a Schindler. There was no Wiesler."
Donnersmarck teamed up with cinematographer Hagen Bogdanski to bring the story to life. Describing his inspiration for the film's Brechtian grey color palette, cinematographer Bogdanski recalls the streets of East Berlin from the period: "They were very dark. Everything was happening inside, in private".
The film was received with widespread acclaim. Film aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes reports a 93% "Certified Fresh" rating, based on 149 positive reviews out of 161, and an average rating of 8.31/10. The website's critical consensus states, "Unlike more traditional spy films, The Lives of Others doesn't sacrifice character for cloak and dagger chases, and the performances (notably that by the late Ulrich Muhe) stay with you". It also has a score of 89 out of 100 on Metacritic, based on 39 critics, indicating "universal acclaim".
A review in Daily Variety by Derek Elley noted the "slightly stylized look" of the movie created by "playing up grays and dour greens, even when using actual locations like the Stasi's onetime HQ in Normannenstrasse."Time magazine's Richard Corliss named the film one of the Top 10 Movies of 2007, ranking it at #2. Corliss praised the film as a "poignant, unsettling thriller."
Film critic Roger Ebert gave the film four stars, describing it as "a powerful but quiet film, constructed of hidden thoughts and secret desires."A. O. Scott, reviewing the film in The New York Times, wrote that Lives is well-plotted, and added, "The suspense comes not only from the structure and pacing of the scenes, but also, more deeply, from the sense that even in an oppressive society, individuals are burdened with free will. You never know, from one moment to the next, what course any of the characters will choose."Los Angeles Times movie critic Kenneth Turan agreed that the dramatic tension of the film comes from being "meticulously plotted", and that "it places its key characters in high-stakes predicaments where what they are forced to wager is their talent, their very lives, even their souls." The movie "convincingly demonstrates that when done right, moral and political quandaries can be the most intensely dramatic dilemmas of all."
American commentator John Podhoretz called the film "one of the greatest movies ever made, and certainly the best film of this decade."William F. Buckley, Jr. wrote in his syndicated column that after the film was over, "I turned to my companion and said, 'I think that is the best movie I ever saw.'"John J. Miller of National Review Online named it #1 in his list of 'The Best Conservative Movies' of the last 25 years.
Several critics pointed to the film's subtle building up of details as one of its prime strengths. The film is built "on layers of emotional texture", wrote Stephanie Zacharek in Salon online magazine. Josh Rosenblatt, writing in the Austin Chronicle called the film "a triumph of muted grandeur." Lisa Schwarzbaum, writing in Entertainment Weekly, pointed out that some of the subtlety in the film is due to the fact that "one of the movie's tensest moments take place with the most minimal of action" but that the director still "conveys everything he wants us to know about choice, fear, doubt, cowardice, and heroism." An article in First Things makes a philosophical argument in defense of Wiesler's transformation. The East German dissident songwriter Wolf Biermann was guardedly enthusiastic about the film, writing in a March 2006 article in Die Welt: "The political tone is authentic, I was moved by the plot. But why? Perhaps I was just won over sentimentally, because of the seductive mass of details which look like they were lifted from my own past between the total ban of my work in 1965 and denaturalisation in 1976."
Slavoj ?i?ek, reviewing the film for In These Times, criticized the film's perceived softpedaling of the oppressiveness of the German Democratic Republic, as well as the structure of the playwright's character, which he thought was not very likely under a hard communist regime.Anna Funder, the author of the book Stasiland, in a review for The Guardian called The Lives of Others a "superb film" despite not being true to reality. She claims that it was not possible for a Stasi operative to have hidden information from superiors because Stasi employees themselves were watched and almost always operated in teams.
According to German author Christoph Hein, the movie is loosely based on his life story. In a 2019 article, he recalls that Donnersmarck interviewed him in 2002, and that his name was mentioned in the opening credits at the premiere screening. However, in Hein's opinion the highly dramatized events of the movie bear little resemblance to his life experience, which is why he asked Donnersmarck to delete his name from the credits. In Hein's words, "the movie does not depict the 1980s in the GDR", but is a "scary tale taking place in a fantasy land, comparable to Tolkien's Middle-earth."
The film and its principals have won numerous awards. Among the most prestigious are:
The Lives of Others also appeared on many critics' lists of the ten best films of 2007.
The Europe List, the largest survey on European culture established that the top three films in European culture are
Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Netherlands and Sweden had the film at number 1.
In September 2014, 43 members of the Israeli elite clandestine Unit 8200 wrote a letter to Israel's prime minister and army chief, refusing further service and claiming Israel made "no distinction between Palestinians who are and are not involved in violence" and that information collected "harms innocent people." One of these people named a viewing of The Lives of Others as "the transformational moment".
The Lives of Others has been referred to in political protests following the 2013 mass surveillance disclosures.Daniel Ellsberg in an interview with Brad Friedman on KPFK/Pacifica Radio republished on salon.com stressed the importance of The Lives of Others in light of Edward Snowden's revelations:
ELLSBERG: My knowledge of the Stasi is not very extensive, but it's largely from a movie called The Lives of Others, which won the Oscar for "Best Foreign Film" some years ago. Everybody should get that now. It should be reissued now. Preferably. It has subtitles. In German. But I'd like to see it dubbed so it had a wider audience. What that shows is what life can be with a government that knew as much as the Stasi did then. But if they know – and one thing they can do with that information right now – is to turn people into informants, so that the government has not only the information that people say on electronic devices, they have what they say in the bedroom, because their wife or their whoever – spouse – is an informant. As happened in the movie. That is what did happen in East Germany. And if we were to get that here, and there's the infrastructure for it right now, we will become a democratic republic in the same sense as the East German Democratic Republic.
Film critic and historian Carrie Rickey believes that The Lives of Others was one of two movies that influenced Snowden's actions, the other being the 1974 Francis Ford Coppola film The Conversation, both being about wiretappers troubled by guilt.
Both movies are about the morality of surveillance and the questionable reliability of information harvested – and how listeners can be duped and/or can misinterpret raw data. I would recommend these films to anyone interested in great movies that touch on the issues raised by L'Affaire Snowden.
On 25 June 2013, after revelations of collaboration between NSA and GCHQ, British journalist and documentary maker Sarfraz Manzoor tweeted that "Now would be a good time to pitch a British remake of The Lives of Others." On 16 July 2013, American novelist and frequent cable news commentator Brad Thor stated "At what point did the Obama administration acquire the rights to reenact The Lives of Others?"
French President Nicolas Sarkozy gave an interview in Le Figaro expressing his outrage over being the victim of surveillance himself. He drew a direct comparison to Henckel von Donnersmarck's film: "This is not a scene from that marvellous film "The Lives of Others," about East Germany and the activities of the Stasi. It is not the case of some dictator acting against his political opponents. This is France." Because of this interview, sales of Le Figaro more than doubled.
Henckel von Donnersmarck and Ulrich Mühe were successfully sued for libel for an interview in which Mühe asserted that his second wife, Jenny Gröllmann, informed on him while they were East German citizens through the six years of their marriage. Mühe's former wife denied the claims, although 254 pages' worth of government records detailed her activities. However, Jenny Gröllmann's real-life controller later claimed he had made up many of the details in the file and that the actress had been unaware that she was speaking to a Stasi agent.
It was therefore with particular interest that I recently sat down to watch The Lives of Others, this already celebrated film about the Stasi, made by a West German director who was just sixteen when the Berlin Wall came down.