Sitting with folded hands behind the plainest of brown desks, Gerd Wiesler is your prototypical worker drone, a secure little cog in East Berlin’s secret police. Compact, patient and almost robotically attentive, Wiesler (Ulrich Muhe) makes for a coldly efficient expert interrogator, capable of grinding confessions out of suspected citizen defectors with self-assured patience. When he spouts the party’s loyalist rhetoric to a classroom of government trainees, it’s because he believes it.
Welcome to “The Lives of Others” and its pre-unification East Berlin, where a possibly subversive classroom question can raise suspicion and an overheard lunchroom joke can merit a demotion. The Stasi secret police maintain constant public patriotism with a relentless task force of social regulation, boasting more than 200,000 citizen “informants” as well as countless more operatives like the ever-dutiful Wiesler. And with his meager personal life given purpose by his detail-oriented job, Wiesler is truly as mechanical ass his government machine. Even when this guy takes his binoculars to the theater, he’s looking at the audience.
Once presented with an opportunity for intense single-subject surveillance, however, Wiesler’s capacity for emotional distance begins to waver. As targets go, writer Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) and his actress girlfriend Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck) certainly seem pleasant enough. As two handsome adults with a strong relationship and successful artistic careers, they’re the very picture of middle-class respectability, and they are totally unaware that their shabby-chic apartment has been thoroughly bugged.
They should know better. Art to this government is only as valuable as it is patriotic, which means that East Berlin’s artistic community is effectively under siege. In hitting back at the self-righteousness of government censorship, “Lives” minces no words, scowling as officials pick their targets merely by the “arrogance” of their self-expression.
Ultimately, however, it’s not art that gets to Wiesler, but basic human relations. It’s after simply listening round-the-clock to the couple’s everyday routine that Wiesler finds himself increasingly reluctant to take those headphones off – after all, when he trudges home at night, it’s to a sterile and very empty apartment.
Intricately layered by writer-director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, “The Lives of Others” is a careful exploration of secrets, art and loyalty which also strives to remain relevant in our own recent era of wire-tapping. Compared by some critics to Francis Ford Coppola’s surveillance drama “The Conversation” (1974), “Lives” gains an emotional edge by more equally parceling out its narrative to all parties involved – even Wiesler’s ambitious boss, Lt. Grubitz (Ulrich Tukur), gets a chance to slowly grow into his position of authority. Donnersmarck’s characters remain social representatives without losing their humanity, much as their precisely streamlined stories remain within the bounds of believability without getting dull.
Encouraged by a fellow writer, Dreyman eventually begins to wet his feet in the risky business of smuggling anti-party literature out to West Germany’s sympathetic press. Huddled in his wiretapped study, Dreyman’s small group of agitators painstakingly crafts their investigative pieces, employing their art in the name of their beliefs.
Meanwhile, back at the Stasi bureau, Lt. Grubitz listens to a typewriter expert explain the difficulties of tracking the typeface on a draft of Dreyman’s illegal article. In one of Donnersmarck’s many pointed subtleties, the government expert has his presentation laid out on a painter’s easel. It’s a meaningful touch – as far as this government’s concerned, it’s surveillance and its many details that have become art.
Four stars out of five
The Lives of Others
At the Michigan Theater
Sony Pictures Classics