The Lives of Others takes place in the early 1980s, the last gasp of a dying East Germany that would be all be decimated within the decade. By all rights, a movie about the secret police in East Germany shouldn't make me miss Berlin, but it super does.
What, like I'm not going to spam my film blog with vacation pictures when the occasion arises?
A serious, dour member of the Stasi is a credit to his profession. Hauptmann Wiesler is quiet, observant, and loyal to the State. He not only serves as an investigator and interrogator, but also instructs the next generation of the Stasi.
The film begins with him calmly and patiently interrogating a man whose friend has fled the country, attempting to information about who helped him escape. Deprived of sleep, food, and the outside world, the mental anguish of this man eventually becomes too much for him to bear and he tells our friend everything he knows. This encounter is being recorded and played back for Wiesler's class, some of whom are equal parts intrigued and disturbed by it.
One student asks why they're interrogating the man on the recording for so long and not letting him sleep, suggesting that it's inhuman, and just like that he gets a little x next to his name on the class roster. Marked, it would seem, for further investigation.
This is the world we're dropped into. Where everything you say and do is carefully documented and used to measure you up against the ideal East German citizen.
Shortly after this class, Wiesler is charged with investigating a supposedly loyal Socialist playwright named Georg Dreyman. It's made clear to him that this is very important to someone particularly high up in the government, and that finding something incriminating about him would be looked upon with extreme favor. Like, don't plant a copy of Digging A Tunnel Under the Berlin Wall for Dummies in his apartment, but if one just happens to fall out of your pocket while you're there, well, these things happen and he probably was planning an escape anyway.
Because you know what's not ideal for a loyal Socialist playwright? Having a girlfriend who also happens to be sleeping with a major party official. Then the day comes when Mr. Fancy Minister wants his rival out of the way, and poor little playwright finds himself mysteriously under investigation. I swear, you give some men a little bit of power and this is the shit they pull.
Sure, Christa (said girlfriend) is only stepping out with the party official because...well, if you thought what he did to your boyfriend when you were sleeping with him was bad, imagine what he'll do when you stop.
So Wiesler spends the foreseeable future as an invisible third partner in Georg and Christa's relationship. He has their apartment bugged, they're followed everywhere, and copious notes are taken on everything they do. And this might seem obvious, but this man has no life.
He becomes obsessed with these two people, almost like they're characters in a soap opera made just for him. If he was born in another time, he'd probably be posting gifs of them on tumblr, his precious cinnamon rolls who are too pure for this world. Instead, he just sort of turns a blind eye to the decidedly disloyal behavior they occasionally engage in.
Georg and Christa are fairly familiar dramatic archetypes: the intellectual poet who can't help but be political, the unstable but passionate and talented actress. But to our guy, they're utterly fascinating, and he quickly develops a one-sided relationship with this couple to the point that he is willing to sacrifice his career to protect them.
And it's painfully clear that he becomes so invested in their lives because he doesn't have one of his own. No family, no friends, no hobbies, just colleagues and the occasional brusque prostitute for any companionship in the broadest sense of the word. He is an empty vessel, a nameless, faceless cog in the machine of the secret police, who is only able to experience life through his meager interactions with Georg and Christa.
Wiesler is not an active participant in life. He is entirely passive. He listens, he observes, he documents, he interrogates. But while his position offers him safety and prestige, it also dooms him to the life of a spectator. I think that he is tremendously taken by the glamorous lives of these artists, these people who create out of thin air beautiful and meaningful things.
And although he is not an exceptional or noteworthy person, he begins to take steps that take him from a strictly observational role in their lives, a mere ghost in their apartment, to a much more active role until he is the direct orchestrator of key events in their lives.
This is not one of those films where a man with deeply held hateful beliefs suddenly has an epiphany, realizes the error of his ways, and turns his back on everything he once held dear. This is the story of a man who, upon being confronted with an enemy of his state, finds something of beauty and value in his enemy's life, and decides to do what he can to protect it. Small but ultimately significant gestures that end up saving Georg's life and ruining the promise of Wiesler's.
This is not a true story, but at the same time it very much is. There is no man named Wiesler who sacrifices his career to protect others from the cruelty of the Stasi. But interestingly enough, the actor who played Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe, putting on a masterclass in subtlety before tragically dying of stomach cancer only a year after the film was released) had more than enough to draw on from his real life.
Being a theater actor in East Berlin, he was himself under surveillance, and years later had the opportunity to go through his personal file, just as Dreyman did, only to find out that his wife at the time was listed as an informant. Somehow, the oft repeated phrase "art imitates life" feels a little too on the nose in this case.