The Lives of Others, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s 2006 film about an East German secret service agent spying on a couple in 1984 Berlin, is on the surface a rather stock film about people living in an oppressive regime. The tropes are all there: the secret police agent who begins to question who exactly he’s serving, the reticent man jolted into taking a stand against injustice, and the artist who must choose between personal or creative integrity. Throw in some bleak lighting and nondescript concrete buildings and we could be anywhere between Berlin and Moscow.
What is unique about The Lives of Others is that von Donnersmarck is not content to simply wind these characters up like toy soldiers and watch them trudge to the end of the story. The characters in The Lives of Others are much more akin to spinning tops on a small table that smash into each other and alter their courses irreparably.
It is through these collisions that von Donnersmarck expresses the contradictions of East Germany: one could either serve the state or its citizens, but never both. The well-intentioned, anonymous meddling of Stasi secret police agent Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Muhe) on behalf of a couple, writer Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) and actress Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck), improves the relationship between the pair at the cost of intensifying the state’s violent investigation into their lives. All of the actors turn in complex, tortured performances that reflect the complex choices they face. Ulrich Mühe’s performance as Wiesler is especially moving, portraying a Stasi agent with empathy and cruelty, making both his lifetime of service to an oppressive regime and his change in perspective on Dreyman and Sieland seem believable, if not inevitable. Von Donnersmarck’s use of Wiesler’s written reports makes these changes in Wiesler’s attitudes towards Dreyman and Sieland especially striking.
The narrative structure of the film itself leads to basic questions surrounding human nature. As the viewer watches a man watch other people, von Donnersmarck seems to not only question the nature of the surveillance state but also the nature of the cinematic experience. What is it that we like so much about watching the minutiae of other people’s lives unfold? Are Wiesler and the rest of the Stasi an aberration or just an extreme perversion of an innate human desire to know the intimate details of someone else’s life?
The film’s greatest strength, however, is its ending. The tragedy of it serves as a warning to both the totalitarian state and the voyeuristic individual: perhaps the lives of others are best left alone.