The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen)

8/11/2007 19:45.

Stasi officer Gerd Wiesler is given the task of spying on a playwright and the latter’s actress-girlfriend. The information gathered, of course, will be used to wreck lives, because this is East Germany. Gradually he turns from true believer in the system to attempting to assist his bugged prey and, when this is discovered, pays the price. Wiesler, played by the late Ulrich Mühe, puts in a powerful, undemonstrative performance, and the film went on to win Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. “A suspenseful thriller with a complex and powerful moral drive” (Philip French, The Observer).
Dir: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, Germany 2006, 137 minutes

Programme Notes

Successful, politically approved playwright, famous actress girlfriend. Government minister desires actress. So far, ‘it could happen anywhere.’ But in the GDR (German Democratic Republic, 1949 -1989) the minister can enlist the power of the Stasi (State Security) to entrap the playwright and gain the actress for himself. Unexpectedly the Stasi officer charged with spying on the couple, who is shown to be a committed supporter of the Party line, begins to have thoughts about what he is doing. He faces decisions and does not make the ones that might have been predicted.

Many citizens in 20th century Germany were faced with moral dilemmas from which people in other countries were spared. To collaborate or not to collaborate? To resist or not to resist? To know or not to know? Then, after 1945 and 1989, how to deal with personal history in a fallen dictatorship? Who did what and should they be pursued by the law? Sophie Scholl – Die letzten Tage, shown last year, depicted heroic and principled resistance to one dictatorship and was factually accurate. The Lives of Others depicts the redemption through ‘good works’ of a Stasi agent in another dictatorship and is a fiction. The film has sparked debate in Germany: some say it is hopelessly unrealistic to let a ‘good’ man emerge from an agent of the GDR regime, others accept the story as one of human redemption in a historically accurate setting.

The film is full of internal German cultural, political and social references. Spot the news magazine which the east German writer keeps hidden in a drawer: it is Der Spiegel, a west German publication banned in the GDR. Notice the role of Brecht, lyric writer of great power whose poetry is seen to influence agent Wiesler. Brecht, often the standard-bearer for left-leaning Germans in the west, but another who faced questions about his moral compass. Fleeing the Nazis to the USA (not to the USSR which his writings had always appeared to support) Brecht outwitted McCarthy’s Un-American Activities Committee who wanted to condemn him as a Commie, but later in east Berlin he refused to come to the aid of protesting workers in the abortive 1953 protests against bread prices and work norms. Brecht the intellectual compromised, his principles proved thin. Maybe labels of left/right, east/west mean less than the considered, uncompromised actions of individuals. Stasi officer Wiesler is only one of millions who have had to answer questions not faced by their contemporaries in other lands. [jg]

Martina Gedeck – Christa-Maria Sieland
Gerd Wiesler – Ulrich Mühe
Georg Dreymann – Sebastian Koch
Lt. Col. Anton Grubitz – Ulrich Tukur
Minister Bruno Hempf – Thomas Thieme
Director – Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
Screenplay – Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
Cinematography – Hagen Bogdanski
Original Music – Gabriel Yared
Producers – Max Wiedemann, Quirin Berg

I cannot know whether the wonderful conversion of the Stasi chief is a historical lie or an artistic understatement. We are all addicted to evidence of people’s ability to change for the good. Wolf Biermann, east German dissident writer and singer, in Die Welt

No Stasi man ever tried to save his victims, because it was impossible. (We’d know if one had, because the files are so comprehensive.) Anna Funder, author of Stasiland, in The Guardian


“Sehr gut! Brilliant and complete. A good story. Good.”

“Gripping, moving and very sad”

“Excellent film – very accurate – believable – A+”

“A brilliantly believable story (made) all the more harrowing by being set not far away and not long ago.”

“High up with the greatest (of) films! Wonderful; brilliant acting (in a) perfectly realised setting. One to think about all one’s life. A second viewing for me and as mind-searing as the first time. Thank you”

“Brilliant – even better on second viewing. One of the best films of recent years.”

“Even better on second viewing. Ulrich Muhe gave a brilliantly understated performance. Quite chilling and altogether believable except for his Damascene conversion!”

“JG’s introduction was helpful and the right length. A clear and powerful plot, convincingly acted. Why didn’t Dreymann meet Wiesler at the end?”

“Unremitting tension – entirely credible. England in 20 years’ time?”

“So recent, so chilling – is Big Brother still out there?”

“Maybe Anna Funder was right but it was a great story anyway – and a very moving film. Excellently done all round.”

“Great picture of corruption and (cinematically) how to do tension without (much) action.”

“Ersk klasse! Made me wonder what’s on file about me.”

“Our own enforcers do not enjoy as much freedom of choice – but a ripping yarn, anyway!”

“I can understand why some people can’t relate this story to fact. Nevertheless, entirely riveting.”

“Too starkly, melodramatically black and white. Dreadful use of music but the acting was good. Direction only fair.”

“The characters didn’t ‘live’ for me in the way they did in last week’s film [L’Armée des Ombres] but no doubt that was a product of the way of life in the GDR.”


A:43, B:9, C:1, D:0, E:0 to give 95%