Crossing Over

A review of the Lives of Others (2006)

Spoiler warning: If you have not seen the Lives of Others and know nothing about the plot and would like to experience the film, read no further.

Director: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
Cast: Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler – Ulrich Mühe
Georg Dreyman – Sebastian Koch
Christa-Maria Sieland – Martina Gedeck
Anton Grubitz – Ulrich Tukur
Paul Hauser-Hans-Uwe Bauer
The Minister Bruno Hempf – Thomas Thieme
Screenplay – Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
Director of photography – Hagen Bogdanski
Composer – Stéphane Moucha, Gabriel Yared
Duration: 2 hrs. 17 min.

The Winner of the 2007 Oscar for the Best Foreign Language Film, the Lives of Others stands out as a film in many significant ways. At heart, it’s a deeply human story of one man who was transformed by the power of art. However, to condense the essence of all that the film conveys to just this sentence will do injustice to the other concerns/themes that permeate this dynamite of a film.

Set in Orwellian East Germany 1984, the Lives of Others tells the story of two artists and their Stasi officer. Captain Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler (played to pitch perfection by Ulrich Mühe) teaches the science of interrogation at the Stasi University. His precise methods make him a favourite for carrying out sensitive missions. As in any totalitarian regime, the artists/writers group is considered the most dangerous. But playwright Greog Dreyman (handsome Sebastian Koch) is different. He is – in the words of Minister Bruno Hempf (Thomas Thieme) –  “the only non-subversive writer we have.”

Wiesler is one day taken to see a Dreyman play by his ambitious superior Lieutenant Colonel Anton Grubitz, who wants to climb the Stasi ladder fast. Minister Hempf sets his eyes on the beautiful and insecure actress Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck), who is Dreyman’s girlfriend and leading lady. Hempf wants Dreyman monitored to remove him from Christa’s life. And this job falls on the man who personifies Socialism, Wiesler.

Wiesler and his men bug Dreyman’s home, and take position in the unused attic of the building right above Dreyman and Sieland’s apartment. Each activity of each day is reported in excruciating detail. Monitoring them day and night exposes Wiesler to the writer’s world and ideas. A world where independent thinking and freedom of expression is prized above all else. It is also the world where love thrives. In short, a complete anti-thesis of his sterile, gray, clockwork world where is no room for creative expression and the closest brush with love is the prostitute who has to leave in a hurry for her next appointment. Wiesler struggles in between these two worlds. His loyalty towards the party, a result of years of conditioning as a Stasi officer, versus his longing for this new imaginative universe that opens up through the works of Brecht and Beethoven. Imagination wins in the end.

He is healed and transformed by the power of art. Art also opens up in him emotions like empathy and sympathy. He tries to protect his “charges” from the arm of the state especially since his corrupt higher-ups do not value the spirit of socialism as much as the power they have. The film is an indictment on any system that produces power-hungry people at the helm. The subtle idea is that socialism by itself does not harm anyone but it’s the people who abuse it who do.

The Kafkaesque nightmare picks up momentum in the second half. Dreyman wants to protest the suicide (“self murder” in Stasi terminology) of his dear friend and director Albert Jerska. He pens an explosive article about suicide rates in East Germany and publishes it in a West German magazine. Wiesler protects him all the while.

To deflect suspicion on Dreyman’s article, Wiesler creates details for the play that Dreyman pretends to be writing with Paul Hauser. In doing so, Wiesler stretches over the last bridge that separates the watcher from the watched, Dreyman from himself. Once he begins creating, he becomes an artist and therefore a threat to the state himself. It is not surprising when later he is forced to leave his promising Stasi office. This is only a formal gesture. He had already left the Stasi symbolically when he started supporting Dreyman and the artists.

In the meanwhile, after several attempts – mostly forced – to win over Christa, the Minister Hempf gives up and attacks her in another way. He knows that she is addicted to some drugs, which she gets illegally. She is arrested on this charge and released on one condition that she agrees to be a state informer. The typewriter – damning evidence that Dreyman is the author of the article – is removed surreptiously by Wiesler before the Stasi get to Dreyman’s apartment. This remains unknown to Christa, who is driven by guilt to kill herself. Wiesler is suspected and suspended as a result.

Nearly five years later, the Berlin wall falls and East Germany emerges from behind the iron curtain. Dreyman meets Minister (now ex-Minister) Hempf at a performance of his play and comes to know that he was in fact under severe surveillance. He traces his surveillance records and pieces together that a certain Stasi agent code-named HGW XX/7 had saved him. This proves to be an inspiration for his next book.

The touching story, the tight screenplay, and the inspiring cinematography all come together to create this unforgettable film. Almost every word is evocative in the screenplay, which makes it closer to literature than film. I can’t think of a better screenplay written since the Ang Lee-directed Sense and Sensibility. To support this tight screenplay, the actors have done tremendous job. One actor stands miles above the rest: Ulrich Mühe, in a nuanced performance, creates Wiesler as a man shorn of emotion, feeling or an iota of humanity. From the Android-like Stasi agent, Mühe’s Wiesler literally melts into being human. The cinematography shows some shades of Kurosawa especially in the scenes where he points the camera at the sky. The film’s claustrophobic atmosphere is created as much by the musical score of Stéphane Moucha and Gabriel Yared, (best known for the English Patient) as by the other elements.

Exploring some of the universal and human concerns sets this film apart. It does not treat freedom as an abstract ideal to aspire to. The lack of freedom kills almost everything in its wake. Its absence is never been more heartfelt than in 1984 East Germany.

One common theme – that of crossing over – runs through the film: from suspect to informer, from East to West, from life to death, from sterility to creativity, from intolerance to empathy, from communism to capitalism. All these crossings are linked by one fact: that once you cross over, you cannot go back.

Though the film is situated in 1984, its themes are as relevant today as they were then: not just as a record of the past but also as a reminder of what happens when individual freedoms are curbed. Echoes can be felt as America grapples with privacy acts and other forms of state-sponsored surveillance. Though we might think we are a long way off from there, but we aren’t. What happened to M.F Hussain and Baroda art student are chilling reminders that we have our own “Stasi” and one never knows when they will knock on our door.

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6 thoughts on “Crossing Over

  1. i am an average movie goer, and thrive mostly on flicks that touch the box office. i did watch this one – praise my luck, as it was playing at some screen here – and i found it pretty extraordinary. like you have said, the story and plot perse are nothing out of the ordinary, yet the way it was narrated – spoke much about the storyteller.

    i must also say that you have given it a thorough, and to me a very technical review! enjoyed reading this, as much as i enjoyed watching the movie.

    about the painter – well, i’ve always been confused. at one time, i would be infuriated that he actually pained someone that i worshipped all my life, in the nude. to me, then, it was offensive. and then, as i grew, i also started questioning myself – if all forms of expression were to possibly offense someone or the other, then do we curb it all? obviously not, …and so, this became another one of those grey areas that got buried in the recesses, to surface now and then, as it has when i read the last few lines of your post.

    thank you!

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