Pity East Germany; gone and, at least on this side of the Atlantic, utterly forgotten. Even if they preface it with “the former” at least people still remember Yugoslavia’s name. But the German Democratic Republic? Trabants? When was the last time you heard a joke about the East German women’s Olympic swim team? 1988 was it?
German-import The Lives of Others, nominated for Best Foreign Language Film Oscar this year, may be your last chance to glimpse the GDR on celluloid. Take it. A reel that wraps its apprehension of totalitarianism’s power to warp societies around a brick of human emptiness, it’s smart and admirably executed: a subtle, interior spy thriller where the spy is, ultimately, you.
In director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s imagination it’s 1984 in East Berlin, and perestroika is nowhere in sight. Captain Gerd Weisler (Ulrich Mühe) is an ace agent in East Germany’s secret police, the Stasi. A gaunt and severe little man whose primary social skill is interrogation, Weisler is a hero to loathe: So dedicated to defending socialism from dissent that when his boss, Anton Grubitz (Ulrich Tukur), drags him to a play, he passes the time scrutinizing audience members through opera-glasses. A lucky thing too, because Culture Minister Hempf (Thomas Thieme) wants Weisler to put the playwright, Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) under surveillance. Dreyman is the only artist in the GDR still loyal to the regime — it’s a little suspicious.
Between Minister Hempf’s intimidating slickness (“Do you think we imprison people on a whim?” he asks a dissident writer, “If you thought our system was capable of such a thing, that would be reason enough to arrest you.”) and Weisler’s gravitas, Donnersmarck’s East Berlin comes off pretty grim. And this, surprisingly, is an aberration for Euro-films.
For the last decade and a half German filmmakers have been in thrall of Ostalgia. Where it comes up, East Germany is depicted with affection, like an old, harmless eccentric. As a child Donnersmarck visited relatives in East Germany. Yet his most vivid recollection is of the constant, low-grade fear in people’s eyes.
The film examines its East German landscape with all of the fascinated intensity of nostalgia, and a clearer lens to boot. Hagen Bogdanksi’s camerawork lingers eloquently on socialist spaces. All the paint is leached of color. Weisler’s plattenbau apartment is very empty. And even when the smog lifts from wide, car-less streets everything’s still grey.
To the contemporary imagination, the police state is a terrifying techno-dystopia, as effortlessly repressive as The Matrix, fraught with retina scanners and satellite tracking. Donnersmarck pops that balloon, lightening the mood with wry, punctual wit. Weisler has to sit for hours a time in the attic of Dreyman’s building to eavesdrop, transcribing every word on a clunky typewriter.
Though no subversive, Dreyman leads an absorbing life. His friend Albert, a blacklisted theater director, is sinking deep into depression. And he and his actress girlfriend, Christa (Martina Gedeck) are quite passionate about each other. Watching Weisler squirm as he listens in on them, typing “various acts of intimacy follow,” the police state isn’t so much terrifying as absurd.
As Weisler is losing himself in the lives of these others, you’re peering into him, even deeper. It’s a juicy mix: Dreyman is not the vacant apparatchik he seems, nor is he the only man in Christa’s life. But it’s the depth of meaning that Dreyman and Christa find in their respective arts that transfixes Weisler, baffling and then beckoning him.
The narrative takes art film themes and tightens the noose around them with the earnest speed of a spy movie. Its only flaw is that it doesn’t trust its instincts through to the end. Set a movie in 1984 East Berlin and it’s a safe bet the audience will get the big irony. Still, going 20 minutes too long, Donnersmarck jumps to 1989 to watch Dreyman, adrift in reunification, fumble to make literary sense of everything that’s happened. It would be a treat to see Weisler, except that the once fierce defender of socialism is completely useless in the new Germany.
No matter how far people may go down the wrong path, they can always do the right thing. And involvement in others’ lives can help them do it, says The Lives of Others. But there’s another, less heartening missive riding piggyback, one about those, like Weisler, who believed in and thrived within a communist system for their entire lives, and then saw it collapse.
Economists have lamented the economic side of this: How does a Stasi agent make a living when there’s no more Stasi? More importantly though, what does a Stasi agent believe in when there’s no more Stasi, no more socialism to defend? How does he explain the world to himself? How is he still able to believe that his life was worthwhile? Is he able at all?
It’s easy to shrug off the fact that there are millions of Gerd Weislers out there. They are old, and overall, post-communist seem to be transitioning well. But keep pondering the above questions. There are still a few Marxist regimes that haven’t given up the ghost, and other failed ideologies to boot. It will be decades before we’ve sorted out all those who invested themselves in Arab nationalism and radical Islam, only to be ripped off.
The Lives of Others has a display case full of richly deserved festival accolades, but the Oscar will likely go to Pan’s Labyrinth. If it’s any consolation though, Donnersmarck has created a film that will be remembered longer that East Germany itself.
– Louis Wittig is a writer in New York.