The Lives of Others

Germany 2006

Film still for The Lives of Others

Reviewed by Geoffrey Macnab


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists.

East Germany, the mid 1980s. The Ministry of State Security (better known as the Stasi) has a huge army of state-trained spies investigating every aspect of the lives of their fellow citizens. State security captain Gerd Wiesler is expert at interrogating dissidents and breaking their will. He works closely with Lieutenant Colonel Anton Grubitz, who heads the culture department at State Security and reports to the minister, Bruno Hempf.

Georg Dreyman is one of the country's leading playwrights. His work isn't considered subversive, though it has a following in the west. Hempf tells Grubitz to keep an eye on Dreyman. Wiesler is assigned to spy on him. It turns out that Hempf is blackmailing Dreyman's girlfriend Christa and also having an affair with her. Dreyman has been lobbying for his blacklisted friend, stage director Albert Jerska, to be allowed to return to work. This counts against him with the authorities.

As Wiesler eavesdrops on Dreyman's life, he begins to realise how limited his own existence is by comparison. Dreyman is generous, impulsive, in love with ideas and passionate about music.

Jerska commits suicide. Dreyman is so stung by his death that he decides to write an illegal story about conditions in the GDR, in particular the high suicide rate. He composes it on a smuggled typewriter. Wiesler knows about this but doesn't intervene, and the story is published in the west. Christa betrays Dreyman as the author. The Stasi raid his apartment, hoping to find the smuggled typewriter that will incriminate him, but it has been removed by Wiesler, who is now acting as Dreyman's guardian angel. Christa, racked with guilt about betraying Dreyman, runs into the road and is hit and killed by a truck. Grubitz realises there is something awry with the surveillance of Dreyman. He punishes Wiesler by sending him to work in the postal department, steaming open letters.

In 1991, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Dreyman belatedly discovers he was under full surveillance and goes to read his files. He realises he was protected by 'HGW XX/7' and asks his identity. This is Wiesler, now working as a postman. Dreyman decides not to meet him but two years later publishes a book, Sonata for a Good Man. Wiesler buys a copy and sees that it is dedicated to him.


Florian Henckel Von Donnersmarck's debut feature arrives in Britain trailing kudos and controversy in its wake. Alongside its many other prizes, The Lives of Others won this year's best foreign language Oscar, a remarkable achievement for a lowish budget German film dealing with the political legacy of the Stasi era. Some have questioned the premise on which the film is based. In particular, they have taken exception to the sympathetic portrayal of Gerd Wiesler, the Stasi man who sees the error of his ways and protects rather than destroys his quarry. Anna Funder, author of the book Stasiland and an acknowledged authority on the GDR of the 1980s, has expressed her discomfort at the film's "rotten core", and she points out that there is no record of a Stasi agent ever behaving in this way.

Perhaps Von Donnersmarck has gilded history in his bid to create an uplifting narrative in which an old-fashioned notion of decency eventually prevails. Nonetheless, his portrayal of Stasi-era East Germany is chilling in its detail. He shows just how the state police set about breaking a suspect: question him relentlessly and deny him sleep, runs the formula that has clearly been exhaustively tested. An innocent prisoner will shout and rage, but a guilty one will calmly repeat his pre-prepared lies. Threaten to imprison his wife and put his kids into state care - then he'll talk. The Stasi are portrayed as master craftsmen: they know just how to wire up an apartment and where to place bugs. They use odour samples from their suspects, have dogs specially trained to sniff out fear, and have their own pseudo-scientific means of classification. Georg Dreyman, the playwright Wiesler is ordered to spy on, fits into the category of "hysterical anthropocentrist".

The film is also alert to the Kafkaesque absurdity of everyday life in the GDR, where there are so many spies that there is almost no one left to be spied on. The director relishes showing the tension and intimidation that contaminate society. "The party needs artists but artists need the party more," the utterly cynical Hempf declares as he casually brushes the buttocks of the actress he is blackmailing; another Stasi officer, Grubitz, terrifies a young party activist who has had the temerity to tell a joke at the expense of GDR leader Erich Honecker.

The director has stated that his original inspiration came from a remark Lenin made about Beethoven's Apassionata: "If I keep listening to it, I won't finish the revolution." The idea is to expose Wiesler, the archetypal Stasi functionary, to the equivalent of the Apassionata. The repressed, self-hating spy lives in a barren apartment, his emotional life seemingly stretching no further than bouts of mechanical sex with a prostitute. However, as he eavesdrops on the impulsive, freeliving playwright, he discovers within himself a generosity of spirit that he didn't know he had.

What is impressive - especially in a debut feature - is the scale von Donnersmarck gives his material. Production design is deliberately muted (primary colours hardly feature at all) and there is little in the way of action or big crowd sequences, but The Lives of Others still has a majestic quality. Gabriel Yared's music, Hagen Bodanski's sombre cinematography and, above all, the performances add dignity and pathos. Sebastian Koch plays Dreyman with the same mix of vulnerability and idealism he brought to his role as the sympathetic Nazi officer in Paul Verhoeven's Black Book. Martina Gedeck is also effective as his weak-willed actress girlfriend, while there are creepy performances from Ulrich Tukur and Thomas Thieme as the Stasi bosses. Best of all is Ulrich Mühe, who brings a mournful, haunted quality to the role of the self-questioning spy.

Not everything works. The later scenes - in which Dreyman tracks down Wiesler in post-reunification Germany and dedicates a book to him - verge on the maudlin. And there is some cumbersome business about the hiding of an illegal typewriter. There is also the question asked by Anna Funder of just why von Donnersmarck has made a hero out of a character who, when we first encounter him, is so despicable. Is it plausible that he could change so fundamentally? Whatever these quibbles, The Lives of Others has a maturity and breadth of vision rarely found in a debut feature. It is also notable as one of the first films to have looked back at the legacy of the GDR without nostalgia or ironic humour.


Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
Quirin Berg
Max Wiedemann
Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
Director of Photography
Hagen Bogdanski
Patricia Rommel
Art Director
Silke Buhr
Gabriel Yared
Stéphane Moucha
Last Updated: 20 Dec 2011