Tuesday, October 30, 2007


Set in 1980's East Berlin, director Florian Henckel von Donnersmark's debut feature (which earned an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film) provides an exquisitely nuanced portrait of life under the watchful eye of the state police as a high-profile couple is bugged. When a successful playwright and his actress companion become subjects of the Stasi's secret surveillance program, their friends, family and even those doing the watching find their lives changed too.

I just watched this film tonight. It is brilliant. It's about the struggle to retain one's humanity in trying circumstances, and how art, music, and theater can help us in that struggle.

Internet Movie Database Review
Wikipedia Review
Rotten Tomatoes' Reviews

Director's Statement:

German movies produced after the reunification generally, and strangely, depict the GDR (the German Democratic Republic or former East Germany) as funny or moving. Both my parents come from the East, so as a child, I was often in East Germany to visit friends or relatives. A cousin of my father's had been named chief of protocol of Erich Honecker, the East German head of state and boss of the ruling S.E.D. party (Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands, or the Socialist Unity Party of Germany). Other people we knew had very normal jobs, yet no one could see the fear in all of them, right up to the end of the regime. Fear of the Stasi (the State Security), fear of the 100,000 highly trained employees whose sights were trained on one thing: "The Lives of Others": the lives of those who thought differently, who were too free spirited and above all, the artists and people working in the arts. Every aspect of life was recorded. There was no private sphere and nothing was sacred, not even one's closest family members. I met Stasi victims who had been jailed and harassed in Hohenschonhausen (where the central detention center of the Stasi was located). I asked "unoffical agents" about their activities and I had talked to documentary filmmakers who had worked on these topics.

In the film, each character asks questions that we confront every day: how do we deal with power and ideology? Do we follow our principles or our feelings? More than anything else, THE LIVES OF OTHERS is a human drama about the ability of human beings to do the right thing, no matter how far they have gone down the wrong path.

~ Florian Henckel von Donnersmark


Bob Hoeppner said...

Looks good.

I just started reading "The End of America" last night. Kept me up late reading it. Very scary (setting aside the irony that a book criticising the culture of fear generates some apprehension of its own!)

Dana Herbert said...

It was soooo good.

They are planning to make an American version of the movie, with Sydney Pollack as director.

Bob Hoeppner said...

Okay, you sold me. I verified that Barnes & Noble in Enfield has it in stock, so I'm gonna pick it up on my way outta work. Might have a chance to watch it this weekend. Plus, I'll e-mail my German cousin to see what she thinks of it. Thanks for posting about this!

Dana Herbert said...

I want a full review from you when you are done watching it Bob!

Bob Hoeppner said...

>Do we follow our principles or our feelings?

That is an excellent question.

Ok, I'll report when ready.

Bob Hoeppner said...

I watched The Lives of Others, along with the director's interview, deleted scenes with director commentary, and "the making of." I think it's the kind of movie that will affect me more as time goes by and my subconscious works on it. Especially since it dovetails with my reading of "The End of America." In fact, in the chapter on surveillance, which I read this morning, Naomi Wolf mentions the movie as an example.

My boss is a good boss, one of the best I've had, but he is very conservative politically (somewhat more liberal when it comes to social issues, though even that seems to be changing.) We've had some unpleasant arguments (there has been some verbal bullying when he o'reillys me when I disagree, to which I've responded with equal intensity.) We've each gotten better at seeing the other point of view over the years (probably as a matter of survival, as I think we've been close to killing each other at times.) For instance, I weigh torturing a known terrorist in the "ticking bomb" scenario against losing millions in Manhattan, and I see that sticking to pure principle may not always be the most humane thing. And I've thought that warrantless surveillance can be started for something time-sensitive as long as a warrant is eventually issued from a proper judicial authority. But what I'm reading, and what I saw in the movie, have me feeling somewhat less flexible on these issues.

I was sorry to read that Ulrich Mühe, who played Stasi captain Gerd Wiesler, died of stomach cancer about three months after the movie was awarded the Oscar.

If you watch the movie, be sure to check out the extra features. I was particularly interested in the use of music in the movie (its original subtitle was "Sonata for a Good Man") and something the director said about emotions never leaving a place-- that you can go back to where the emotions were expressed and they are still there in the stones.

Quietist said...

hey dana, its justin.

I just watched the film last night. I have to say I thought it was very good. My tastes in cinema have always leaned toward the kind of understated, subtle, nuanced work done so deftly in The Lives of Others.

Muehe's performance was exemplary. I love how even initially, Wiesler's suspicion of Dreyman's loyalty to the regime really only served to hint at his own doubts about the system they were living in. The character of Wiesler, so deadpan and single-minded in the beginning - slowly starts internalizing the lives of Dreyman and his mistress. It shows how little of his own life exists outside of this occupation.

The lack of an interior monologue only serves as a testament to how well Muehe pulls off this performance, still getting the viewer invested in his plight solely through observing him. It shows how our humanity can be easily traded in when we adhere so strictly to principles that stand outside the ambiguity and grey areas of everyday human interactions.

This might seem a bit syncretic but this film hits at an appropriate time in America's history, where our government has taken to similar tactics. Perhaps by highlighting the fact that history has already shown us such tactics couldn't save the East German regime - we should consider the measures the government is taking in the present day, turning its citizens against one another, associating paranoia and suspicion with safeguarding a single-minded way of life, etc.

Well, before I write you a whole book here (lol)
I really have to thank you for recommending this, we'll have to chat about it more sometime. I could ramble on endlessly I'm sure.

- Justin

Dana Herbert said...


From Salon.com's review:

But von Donnersmarck's aim in "The Lives of Others" is to show not how fragile human beings are, how susceptible they are to fear and coercion, but to underscore their capacity for compassion and change, and to remind us that our yearning for joy and pleasure is part of what keeps us alive. In "The Lives of Others," the finer qualities of human beings can never be squelched.

Quietist said...

I agree completely, obviously that compassion and will to do the right thing is the arc that Wiesler experiences during the course of the film. Thats the integral idea in the film but its a given after watching.

My point was mostly to call attention to the stage that needed to be set around Wiesler for us to witness his change of heart. He quietly and gradually began to act in direct opposition to the ideology his job was built on - but this silent revolt couldn't have happened if he were not alone in a sea of people who passively accepted the regime they were living under.

He had no one to confide in as paranoia is one of the key ingredients in such a regime. I think that paranoia and suspicion is so important for these modes of thought to take hold because it is able (in some intances) to keep like-minded from voicing their opinions to each other and thereby finding they might share a common opinion against the state of things.

I didn't mean to neglect the main point in the film, I just found it equally important to note the environment our protagonist was in when his compassion took hold despite those surroundings. I almost thought in a way that the film pointed out that responsibility of making the right decision rests within the individual and not in looking to their peers or their society to dictate what their course of action should be.

again, thanks for recommending the film.
- J.

Bob Hoeppner said...

To the point about human compassion triumphing over opression, I was impressed by this in the wikipedia article on it:

Knabe objected to "making the Stasi man into a hero" and tried to persuade von Donnersmarck to change the movie. Donnersmarck instead cited Schindler's List as an example showing that such a plot development would be possible. Knabe's answer: "But that is exactly the difference. There was a Schindler. There was no Wiesler."

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

One nagging problem I have with the movie is that it might be seen to imply that, even with all that the Bush administration has been doing that seems to parallel what's going on in the movie, it'll somehow be ok because we'll still have Wieslers among us. That's an assumption which is nicer to contemplate than that, should there be a repressive America, there may be no Wieslers to be found. It kinda sentimentalizes repression in a way not helpful to motivate some kinds of people against it.

Dana Herbert said...

That's true Bob.

I am afraid that, judging from the recent surge of suicides in Connecticut, we have lost our faith in human compassion.