How Theater, Music, and a Little Love Toppled the Empire

Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others)
, 2006. Written and Directed by Florian Hanckel von Donnersmarck. Starring Ulrich Muhe, Sebastian Koch, Christa-Maria Sieland, Ulrich Tukur, Thomas Thieme, Hans-Uew Bauer, and Volkmar Kleinert.

Now showing exclusively at the Uptown Theatre.

Legend has it that Lenin, upon encountering Beethoven’s Appassionata Sonata, claimed that he could not bear to hear it anymore, for it made him want to stroke the heads of men… as opposed to smashing them in, which is what he felt he needed to do to get his revolution off the ground. Filmmaker Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck wondered to himself, “Was it possible to construct a situation in whcih Lenin would be forced to listen to the Appasionata?” In the Lives of Others a man, a functionary who has submerged all of his humanity in pursuit of a perfect state, is forced to listen. And he becomes real.

The Lives of Others begins in an interrogation room, with a poor man accused of… something. We are never sure what, and what doesn’t matter. What are sure of, however, is that this is a paranoid country, East Germany, and the Stasi, the secret police of said country, is powerful. The man is shoved into a chair, told to place his hands beneath his thighs, and the questioning begins.

This guy has no chance, as the state has men like Gerd Weisler (the great Ulrich Muhe) working diligently for them. This opening is brilliant–told in flashback, as Weisler is teaching other young hopefuls the art of wrecking the spirit of their countrymen. Weisler is perfect at his job, betraying only the slightest pride in a job well done, making notes to watch the student who wonders about the morality of some of his techniques. Weisler is almost a machine–he has the patience of a metronome ticking away through a long evening. He will do what it takes to make his prisoners confess, never questioning their guilt. For if they are in the chair in front of him, there can be no question.

His former classmate and now superior, the merrily ambitious Grubitz (Ulrich Tukur), asks his pal Weisler to come to a night of theater. Grubitz is interested in his friend’s opinion of the playwright, Georg Dreyman (Sebastien Koch). Dreyman is the darling of the state, and a man who truly believes in the cause of the GDP. It’s not enough–we know, deep down, that it is never enough. “I would watch him,” Weisler says. And so the man too good to be spied up is spied upon.

Of course, it is Weisler who will spy on Dreyman, and to the snoop’s surprise, he will begin to fall in love. Not with Dreyman’s lover, the actress Christa-Maria (Martina Gedek), not with Georg, but with the ideas of love and art and honesty. By listening to the lives of others, Weisler comes to understand that they are quite alike.

Weisler’s fall, if you can call it that, begins slowly. He is punctual and not to be undone by emotion. But as he listens, he is forced to hear the sounds of two people truly in love, people in love with their plays, with Bertolt Brecht, with their friends, and, in the case of Georg, in love with the idea of the state. This is the film’s great conceit: Weisler and Georg are two halves of the same coin–passionate for what they do, ideal citizens, taking to heart what the country is supposed to mean–brotherhood and all its trimmings. Weisler comes to understand that they are more alike, in fact, than his superiors, one of whom is fucking Christa-Maria because he knows a secret that would get her kicked off the stage forever–she is a drug user. Weisler’s soon discovers, too, that his friend is simply a pencil-pushing beaurocrat who only wants to move up in the world–he has no qualms ruining the life of a young man simply telling a joke, or ignoring warnings of sabotage if it will hurt his career. Weisler comes to see that it is his subjects who are true to the state, not the party functionaries.

Slowly we come to care for this Weisler, who steals a copy of Brecht, who listens to the music emanating from the apartment below, and who eavesdrops on their lovemaking not as a peeping tom in search of a cheap thrill, but as a poet in search of inspiration, hoping to find love in his own dark heart.

So Weisler intervenes, hiding information and trying to protect his charges, which leads to disastrous results. The Lives of Others is a remarkable film, for its tension, which locks upon you like a vice, forcing you at times to root for the wrong people (such as when Weisler has to bug Georg’s building), and its nearly unbearable emotional charge. The film is funny in spots, humane, its plot, worthy of Hitchcock, never getting in the way of rich character development. We come to know every one of these people, and even the tiniest character is shown ground up by the state–and later freed, when the wall comes down.

The jokes in the film offer welcome relief of an almost unbearable tension, but also drive home what this whole world is about, and how disastrous and dehumanizing it was. At one point, Weisler elicits the services of a prositute who, in one of the films many damning jokes, is as much on a schedule as he is in his spy work. Life in the GDP is too comparmentalized to allow for love.

The Lives of Others has two endings. The first is expected, not predictable, but we know good things will not happen. And then the director surprises us, and time moves on, the wall comes down, and there is a brief moment of justice. After years of paranoia, of devouring souls and wrecking lives, the state is broken, and the individual is allowed to flourish. Left nearly broken, our hero, Wiesler, will grab at the small taste of love, poetry, and freedom.