Back to the wall

Nothing could provide a more effective antidote to Ostalgie, the tongue-in-cheek nostalgia for the days of the Berlin Wall in which educated Germans are said sometimes to indulge. The Lives of Others, a fierce and gloomy drama written and directed by first-timer Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, was a notable winner of this year’s Oscar for best foreign film. It is an indictment of the sinister brutalities of the Stasi, the German Democratic Republic’s (GDR) secret police, whose tentacular network of informers was so vast that 2% of the civilian population was on the payroll.

A handsome, well-meaning but smug literary lion in mid-1980s East Berlin, Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch), is churning out turgid and derivative sub-Brechtian plays. Dreyman is mightily pleased with himself and his career, and is passionately involved with his glamorous leading lady, Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck). Christa is also secretly conducting a self-loathing affair with a bloated party bigwig who promises her career advancement and guarantees her access to forbidden Western prescription drugs.

Fanatically jealous of Dreyman, the official sets a Stasi officer to bug the playwright’s apartment and find a pretext to fling him into prison. The Stasi functionary is Captain Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Muhe), a cold-fish type who becomes an insidious voyeur, spying on Dreyman and Christa’s relationship. He finally becomes moved to question the state tyranny to whose service he has dedicated his whole life.

The Lives of Others is a very different experience to Good Bye Lenin!, the funny and much-admired satire on East Germany’s collapse. This movie begins with a frighteningly horrible sequence in which Wiesler questions a hapless young man suspected of helping a friend escape to the West. The ruthless grilling is intercut with his lecture to Stasi recruits in which this interrogation has become a set-text: the man’s pleas, screams and sobs are replayed on tape to the earnest young students.

Nothing in Donnersmarck’s intensively crafted liberal tragedy compares to the horror of that moment. The storyline offers redemption: the possibility that, however culpable and corrupt the East German nation became through its complicity with the Stasi, a tiny but imperishable capacity for decency was what finally consigned the regime to history. But perhaps simple exhaustion and self-disgust caused it to collapse.

Either way, the narrative progression is shaped by the thawing of Wiesler’s sinister professionalism. At first utterly detached, he develops a malign and morbid interest in revealing to Dreyman that Christa is having an affair. From his makeshift surveillance station in the building’s attic, he rigs the doorbell so that it will ring repeatedly and bring Dreyman to the door to see Christa getting out of a party limousine. From there, Wiesler becomes involved in the passion, anguish and eroticism of their relationship, and increasingly aware of the utter nullity of his own existence.

Martina Gedeck gives a typically pungent and charismatic performance as the sexy, venal Christa. Gedeck creates a blowsy, almost pornographic sensuality on screen and it is easy to imagine the weakness and narcissism that caused Christa to cooperate with the secret police.

Sebastian Koch’s Dreyman is a less satisfying character. He is the flawed good guy who begs the authorities to remove errant theatrical comrades from the blacklist, and who winds up writing a sensational article for the Western press, denouncing the GDR. But he is never shown examining his own choices and does not obviously reproach himself for kowtowing to the party’s big cheeses.

The big, showy emotional setpieces of this film are robustly staged and powerfully acted, though not as telling as the little details. An incautious Stasi official is shown telling a joke about Erich Honecker and is later reduced to humiliatingly minor clerical duties, presumably because of this ill-timed joke. The pettiness, spite and quiet desperation of East Germany are all there in the desolate punchline. — Â

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