Synopsis: This critically-acclaimed, Oscar-winning film (Best Foreign Language Film, 2006) is the erotic, emotionally charged experience Lisa Schwarzbaum (Entertainment Weekly) calls “a nail-biter of a thriller!”
Before the collapse of the Berlin Wall, East Germany’s population was closely monitored by the State Secret Police (Stasi). Only a few citizens above suspicion, like renowned pro-Socialist playwright Georg Dreyman, were permitted to lead private lives. But when a corrupt government official falls for Georg’s stunning actress-girlfriend, Christa, an ambitious Stasi policeman is ordered to bug the writer’s apartment to gain incriminating evidence against the rival. Now, what the officer discovers is about to dramatically change their lives – as well as his – in this seductive political thriller.
For many years, ‘The Lives of Others’ came highly recommended to me. It was on every breath, at every turn, it was acclaimed in every corner of the world. From all accounts, it appeared to be a fail-safe motion picture.
I knew the basic idea behind it, that it took place in East Germany and it revolved around an expert interrogator who spied on everyone under the sun for the Stasi, the German Democratic Republic’s secret police. It offered drama, tension, voyeurism.
In the last year, I started to reconsider. Then the opportunity of getting the BD at a discount for Boxing Day appealed to me; I figured that it would be the right admission price for me. So I grabbed it while I could and let it cool off on the shelf for some months.
Having now seen it, I can safely say that it’s likely going to remain on the shelf for a while longer. Even though I quite enjoyed the film, and think that it’s a well-crafted drama that is entirely believable and which features exceptional actors, I can’t fathom why I’d want to see it again.
And that’s why drama is a problem for me: although I tend to enjoy them, they have very little replay value. The key problem is that, by knowing the plot and its development, I don’t really need to revisit it – while it has a strong emotional core, as ‘Das Leben der Anderen’ does, drama frequently has limited escapist appeal.
And I’m no different.
My favourite part of the picture is the introduction, wherein the filmmakers explained how the Stasi interrogate people, showing us some of the tricks of the trade. Because it shows how methodical and brilliant the villains are, this was as interesting to me as the opening sequence of ‘Casino’ – even if it wasn’t nearly as detailed or as riveting. Further to showing us the man behind the curtain, so to speak, it instilled a profound sense of insecurity from the onset, in that we immediately understand just how far the Stasi would go to meet their objectives and how much they had it down to a science. No one could escape. No one was safe.
‘Das Leben der Anderen’ lays out just how devastating the impact that a surveillance state has on a personal level and how difficult it is to break free from it when everyone allows the system to take hold. It demonstrates how fear can be such a powerful ally of the corrupt and power-hungry; by brutalizing anyone in their way, or by making threats to them -directly or indirectly- they destabilize any opposition and maintain a grip on positions that affect us all. It’s a scary notion, especially when one considers that there are so many more of us than there are of them. It would be so easy to just say “no”, but fear of reprisals will mute most.
Our main character, the Stasi interrogator, reminded me of Kevin Spacey – a German Kevin Spacey, of course. He was a curious one because as he got personally involved on this particular watch. He suddenly started to act out of character: a consummate professional up until then, he began to break rules, cut corners, and even help out the very people he was supposed to survey. It is suggested that he becomes enamoured with the woman, a singer who has caught the attention of the interrogator’s boss, but it’s not clear why her, why now and what his intentions are. He is so private that even we are not let in on his innermost secrets and desires. We just know that he’s unravelling.
It all makes for a fascinating portrait of an era, of an oppressed society, and of a man. Personally, I think that it would make for a great opening salvo in a dismal totalitarian regime double-bill… with ‘1984’.
Post scriptum: Come to think of it… why not make it a triple bill with ‘The Conversation’, while we’re at it? We could start with ‘The Conversation’ to build up the paranoia, then ‘The Lives of Others’ to get behind the curtains a bit more and get a sense of the personal cost of surveillance, then dash all hope with ‘1984’, the most damaging of them all.
And, finally, to add some “fun” to the proceedings, one could put up posters of people looking dead on (many movie poster are like that, so that should be easy to find and a discreet way to go about it) break out bowls of eyeball gummies or gumballs so that your friends always have something looking at them, no matter where they’re sitting, and… Weehoo! There you have it: the perfect surveillance state party!!!