When the Soviet submarine film “The Hunt for Red October” appeared in 1990, a magazine headline described it with a sigh of relief as “The Last Cold War Movie.” And that proved largely prophetic. While the movie industry continues to mine the Third Reich’s dozen years, the much longer era of Communist tyranny in Eastern Europe has seemingly disappeared down the media memory hole.
In Germany, “It’s forbidden by law to deny the crimes of the Nazis,” observes historian Hubertus Knabe, “But it’s almost forbidden by custom since reunification to really discuss the crimes of the regime that turned East Germany into a prison.” Hence, a huge hit in Germany was “Good Bye, Lenin!”—a sweet comedy inspired by the misbegotten Ostalgie fad (nostalgia for the East).
The German drama “The Lives of Others” shows what we’ve been missing. Perhaps the best movie of 2006, this debut by a 33-year-old, 6’9” writer-director with the heel-clickingly Teutonic moniker of Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck depicts life in 1984 under the eyes of the Stasi secret police. They employed 1 percent of the East German workforce directly and 2 percent as secret informants.
In a masterful opening segment, Wiesler, a thin-lipped, middle-aged Stasi functionary, conducts a textbook interrogation of a hapless citizen accused (and, in effect, already convicted) of not snitching on a neighbor planning to escape to the West. When the prisoner protests his innocence, Wiesler replies, “If you believe we arrest people on a whim, that alone is enough to justify your arrest.” The secret policeman is played with charismatic restraint by East German actor Ulrich Mühe (who had discovered in his Stasi files in the 1990s details about himself reported by his wife).
Wiesler is next assigned to bug the chic—by East Berlin standards—apartment of a playwright named Dreyman, “our only non-subversive writer who is read in the West.” The handsome, boyish Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) is a nice guy who wishes his Party masters and his dissident artist friends would all just get along. He privately protests to the Minister of Culture the blacklisting of his old stage director after he had signed a protest seven years before. The writer is such a likeable golden boy that he might have gotten away with this insubordination, but the Minister has eyes for Dreyman’s leading lady and girlfriend, so he dispatches Wiesler to uncover something that will put him in prison.
In an operation so well-planned that you have to admire its professionalism, Wiesler’s team bugs each of Dreyman’s rooms, even the bathroom. Then, the agent settles in to listen from the attic, typing up detailed chronologies of the couple’s life together, such as “Vigorous intimacies ensued.”
Wiesler embodies every Teutonic tendency, including emotional repression and obsessive-compulsive punctuality. Yet, as terrifying as his efficiency is in a bad cause, from von Donnersmarck’s refreshingly patriotic standpoint, his stereotypically German qualities mark him as redeemable.
As Wiesler eavesdrops, he begins to sympathize with his victims. The turning point comes when Dreyman learns that his despairing former director has killed himself. He sits down at his piano and plays a sonata the dead man had given him, touching the secret policeman’s German soul.
Von Donnersmarck’s original inspiration for his movie had been anticipated in Tom Stoppard’s 1974 play Travesties, which quotes Lenin saying that when he listens to Beethoven’s Appassionata sonata, he wants to “pat the heads of those people who while living in this vile hell can create such beauty,” but he can’t afford to indulge his love of music, however, because now is the time “to hit heads, to hit them without mercy.”
Von Donnersmarck writes, “What if Lenin could have somehow been forced to listen to the Appassionata, just as he was getting ready to smash in somebody’s head? … I ‘saw’ a picture of a man in a depressing room, with earphones on his head, expecting to hear words that go against his beloved ideology, but actually hearing a music so beautiful and so powerful that it makes him re-think (or rather: re-feel).”
As the playwright moves into dangerous dissidence, Wiesler begins to shield him secretly from the Party, becoming his guardian angel—an elegant reference to the last great Berlin movie before this one, Wim Wenders’s angelic 1987 fantasy, “Wings of Desire.”
Although the tragic climax falls a bit flat, a lovely coda set in a reunited Germany provides an unexpectedly happy ending.