The Lives of Others (2006, dir. Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck)
Starring Ulrich Muhe, Sebastian Koch, Martina Gedeck, Ulrich Tukur, Thomas Thieme
What if we were able to see Big Brother not as a faceless entity, but as a series of human cogs that make up the machine? And, what if we could see each of those cogs, doing their duty in the name of the state, as an individual human being who possesses empathy and compassion. This is the scenario this Academy Award winning German seeks to explore the humanity of a “Statsi Man”, one of the grey men who did the dirty work of the German Democratic Republic so that the authorities could successfully arrest and detain suspected dissidents.
Wiesler (Muhe) is the best the GDR has to offer in terms of surveillance and interrogation. He’s a natural pick to monitor the playwright Dreyman and his live in girlfriend/actress Christa-Maria. Dreyman has been associating with a number of dissidents and secretly an East German official covets Christa-Maria and wants to ruin Dreyman. Wiesler’s crew wires Dreyman’s apartment and begins his ever constant vigil listening to the daily life of the couple. Slowly but surely Wiesler finds himself becoming captivated with Dreyman’s joy and sadness. The death of a close writer friend cause Dreyman to become inspired to write an expose on the GDR’s efforts to cover up suicide statistics and this puts him in a lot of danger. Wiesler is compromised and must make a choice between his duty to the state and his duty to his fellow man.
Wiesler is comparable to Gene Hackman’s portrayal of Harry Caul in the similar wiretapping film The Conversation. Both men are trapped in a world of paranoiac seclusion. The nature of their jobs planted seeds of mistrust and now they live lives of solitude, only feeling safe when they are alone, yet simultaneously feeling empty. Wiesler is glimpsed mostly sitting alone in the attic above Dreyman’s apartment with headphones on, transcribing what he hears through his typewriter. He finally breaks when Dreyman receives a phone call telling him his friend has killed himself. Dreyman grieves by playing a piece of music this friend gave him and its inter-cut with images of Wiesler weeping.
The film comes to a dark conclusion but emphasizes its hopeful message through its series of denouements. The film wants to remind us that even in the most oppressive of times and the most tightest chokeholds, that human compassion can never be predicted. No matter how loyal a person has become to an authoritarian body all it takes is a brief moment of human connection to forever change that instrument into a full human being.