When I first heard about the German film The Lives of Others last year, it was in a negative context – it had just won the foreign-language Oscar over Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, which was widely regarded as a more imaginative, cinematically richer work. Having seen both movies now, I have to say I prefer Pan’s Labyrinth, but it feels like an unfair comparison – the films are so different in tone and in the way they deal with a vaguely similar theme: innocents endangered by a repressive, soul-sapping regime, trying to find something to cling to.
While Pan’s Labyrinth made magnificent allegorical use of a fairy tale to comment on Franco’s Spain, the narrative of The Lives of Others is grimly realist. It's set in socialist East Germany in the year 1984 (probably a nod to Orwell's novel about totalitarianism) and its muted, dull-grey look gives visual expression to a place that has had colour and vitality drained out of it. The story begins with a Stasi police captain named Wiesler being assigned to monitor the activities of a playwright, Georg Dreyman, who is suspected of potential dissidence. As Wiesler maintains a round-the-clock surveillance on Dreyman’s apartment through hidden microphones that record every conversation, he becomes a secret participant in the lives of the playwright and his lover Christa-Maria (in fact, we take his role as hidden audience so much for granted that a scene where he meets Christa-Maria in a bar feels like an intrusion - like the tearing down of the fourth wall).
A key subplot is that Christa-Maria, a stage performer, is in thrall to a powerful minister who wants Dreyman to get into trouble. In a notable early scene, this minister and the idealistic Dreyman have an exchange that is all civility on the surface but carries sinister undertones. Dreyman asks if there is any hope for his friend, a blacklisted theatre director who can no longer find work on an East German stage (incidentally the word “blacklist” is frowned upon by the regime: they wouldn’t do that to anyone!). “Oh, there’s always hope as long as he’s alive,” the minister snorts, “and perhaps even after that. Isn’t hope the last thing to die?” He then patronisingly commends Dreyman for his continuing faith in mankind. “What we like about your plays,” he says, “is your belief that people can change. But in reality, people don’t change.”
It could be said that the rest of the film is a counterpoint to these words, showing us the gradual transformation that takes place in the spying Wiesler, a transformation that is superbly expressed in Ulrich Muhe’s low-key performance. He portrays Wiesler as a misfit – a lonely, isolated figure – whose stiff walk (his arms appear glued to his sides in some scenes) and deadpan expression make him seem like a solemn cartoon character or a silent-screen comedian, but who grows in personal dignity as the story progresses. When he is moved by the sound of Dreyman's piano-playing, or when he reads a Brecht essay that he found in the writer’s apartment, a gentle, befuddled smile forms on his face – it’s as if he can’t quite comprehend what is happening to him. Shortly after this, when he encounters a child who blurts out that his father calls the Stasi “bad men who arrest innocent people”, he reflexively starts to ask for the father’s name (something that he’s doubtless done before in similar situations) but checks himself at the last moment. Here and in other scenes we see him becoming more introspective, questioning the purpose of his work – to the extent that he eventually imperils his own position by covering up for Dreyman.The performance is just right; if it had been even slightly amiss, it could have sunk the film, especially since the script by itself doesn’t provide a fully convincing explanation for Wiesler’s change of heart.
A running theme is the transcendental nature of art and how artists and their audiences are affected by it. “Writers are engineers of the soul,” someone says while toasting Dreyman (though this is ironic given that the playwright doesn’t have the freedom to openly write whatever he wants to). At another point, Dreyman wonders aloud while playing a sonata, “Can anyone who has truly heard this music be a bad man?” There is a reference to Lenin’s quote about Beethoven’s “Appassionata”: “If I kept listening to this music, I would not be able to finish the revolution.” During a conversation with the blacklisted director Jerska, when Dreyman rues that another, inferior director has made a successful career “by stealing all your good ideas”, Jerska replies that he doesn’t mind because at least this keeps his ideas alive. (In a more downcast mood, however, he likens his situation to that of a miller without corn.) And Christa-Maria is prepared to sell herself for the sake of her craft, which leads to a tragic climax.
The Lives of Others mostly hits the right notes, but one senses how easily it could have tilted into over-sentimentality. There are a couple of scenes where it plays like a German equivalent of the well-meant but bland "topical" TV movies that American networks specialise in producing just in time for the Prime-time Emmys (if this had been an American film, all other things being the same, I think it would have been easier for us English-speaking viewers to be critical of it and magnify its weaknesses). But anchored as it is by the Muhe performance, it remains a very powerful work, and one of its most effective decisions is not to have Dreyman and Wiesler meet in the end, years later, when Dreyman finds out about his secret benefactor. Instead of contriving a face-to-face meeting that would almost certainly have been anti-climactic, it gives the playwright another means to express his gratitude, a means that is consistent with the film’s theme of the redemptive, life-changing power of art. It’s a satisfying conclusion – so many good dramas don’t know how to end well, but this one does.