A film about wiretapping in 2006, even if made in Germany and regarding the extinct Stasi secret police, will unavoidably bring to mind the current political situation in the United States, and abuse of power and information. It is difficult to tell whether this timing is opportunistic or accidental, as the filmmaker has crafted a film with such emotional distance that no obvious agenda is visible. I am not fond of films that deal with evils long past and hence, of diminished inherent heft. A film today that deals with slavery, the Jewish Holocaust, or Apartheid, while well-intentioned and one that may grasp for relevance, must inherently lack teeth. After all, does one need to see yet another film about the evils of the Nazi party, or how South Africa’s National Party suppressed human rights twenty years prior? I should probably give the relevance of The Lives of Others the benefit of the doubt since President Vladimir Putin has been busily shining his scepter. That aside, we are left with a well-made but straightforward film that is as reserved as its spook protagonist, Weisler (Ulrich Muhe). The film proceeds in conventional fashion with dramatic scenes, characters who say pithy things at the right times, all with heavy doses of irony as Weisler listens carefully to every word.
A seemingly devoted Communist playwright named Dreyman (Sebastian Koch), is placed under surveillance at the behest of a cabinet minister, for unclear reasons (the minister is simultaneously looking for leverage against another minister and trying to acquire the playwright’s girlfriend, with few other details provided). Weisler is a teacher and officer in the Ministerium für Staatssicherheit (Ministry for State Security), referred to in hushed tones as Stasi. He is introduced in an effective early scene that gives a few details about interrogation techniques and the philosophy of the Stasi in a way that places you in the times of East Germany. For instance, a standard 48 hour interrogation is not designed to look for proof of guilt, but for the prisoner’s emotional reaction to the steady grind without respite or hope. If they are innocent, they will angrily react and defend their truth and honor, while the guilty will plead and mewl while giving up names. As with all torture, this yields convenient and wildly inaccurate information, but Weisler is such a dedicated career secret policeman and Communist that he sees no difference between factual guilt and the emotional response of the weak who may be innocent now but will surely be corrupted eventually. More on this later.
The playwright’s flat is bugged, and the listener listens intently to all who come and go, the inevitable fuck scene (the report indicates ‘they presumably have intercourse’), and intrigue ensues. Much of this deals with how people under pressure live lives of compromise; Dreyman fails to raise an ill word about the regime and can continue writing, his girlfriend is fucking a minister and so remains a stage actress. This way of living is called into question as the characters come to realize that such compromise only buys a little time before the utterly corrupt and unyielding government makes life itself impossible. The primary character arc is that of the nearly inert Weisler, and the film follows this arc rather than exploring deeper issues the way similar films (The Conversation) have. Here is where the film shows a great weakness, as Weisler bafflingly goes from an idealistic and dedicated Socialist enforcer to a duplicitous ‘Glasnostic’ with only an awkward repressed fumble with a chubby prostitute (one hopes he wasn’t paying by the metric ton) and an eye-rolling cry to Beethoven’s Appassionata in between. I understand that films have a time limit with which to arrive at a preset destination, but the character did not need to be so conformist to begin with, and so sentimental by the time credits rolled. But then, we like our dramas and broadly drawn and conclusions as unsubtle as possible. Lack of freedom is bad. Weisler quickly wakes up the importance of the individual, the beauty of art and music, and the fragility of the human soul.
Issues like loss of individuality and the freedom to express oneself are given superficial attention here – more than anything, this is a story. As such, it follows the crisis of conscience that Weisler experiences as he begins to cover up for Dreyman’s crisis of conscience and budding political activism. The acting is a study in various shades of quiet and repression, and is uniformly excellent. The direction is less subtle, plot points occurring practically with an exclamation mark (the red ink on Dreyman’s fingers, for example, sure enough, becomes a plot point later on). It remains a solid and interesting work, but it will not be confused with Bergman. In the end, the newly open-minded Weisler sacrifices his ambition and desire for perfection in domestic espionage in order to preserve art, or rather the art that Dreyman could be capable of if shielded from a dogmatic and crumbling regime.
Consideration of higher ideas is not the goal of this film, nor is reexamination of the struggle between freedom and security that would be relevant to the current deconstruction of the Constitution in the hands of pedophile homophobe ‘patriots’. For that sort of thing, look elsewhere. Darkness at Noon, for example, brilliantly examined the idea of the loss of identity in the setting of the trials of former Communist intellectuals (the main character is apparently modeled on Trotsky). In this classic novel, there is no difference between actual treasonous plotting and slight dispute with the Party line. Even if your disagreement with the Leader is of benign nature, it suggests that you lack faith in the Leader, and without the Leader’s vision, the Party is adrift without a compass. Therefore, you are destined to betray the Leader. Whether you are a saboteur or weak enough to become one does not matter. If Weisler was cut from this cloth, as interrogators and spooks often are, there is no way his transformation would have come about so easily.
It is interesting how stories about this sort of thing use Communism or some sort of dictatorship as a backdrop, even though true human individuality is becoming a vanishingly rare commodity in democratic societies. The former is an easier subject, as personal lives crushed under the boot of a Stalinesque figure make for obvious emotional touchstones and great cinema. Loss of individuality in a capitalist democracy, on the other hand, requires people to choose giving up their identity, a far more elusive topic requiring extraordinary insight and tact. The best example that leaps to mind is Network. Retrospective works like The Lives of Others, then, despite its solid design, suffer a bit from the distance of time and relevance. The red menace has long since departed, and the Stasi is not tapping your phone. Our current world of consumption and apathy, however, makes for far more unsettling and claustrophobic cinema, for no reason other than that we have chosen to allow our phones to be tapped.