(This is the sixth of 50 pieces that originally appeared in a Facebook group devoted to three of us choosing our 50 favorite movies. I’ll present them un-edited except for typos or egregious errors. I’ll also add a post-script to each.)
The Lives of Others begins in the year 1984, and it resonates with our memories of Orwell’s novel. The film takes place in East Germany (“German Democratic Republic” sounds nicely Orwellian), and has at its core two lovers and a member of the secret police (again reminiscent of 1984). The East Germany of the film is filled with paranoid people who do what they can to appear unremarkable, so as not to draw attention from the wrong people (i.e., the Stasi). Donnersmarck gives us a subculture of artists to help illustrate the largely unspoken strictures of life under the State; while there are dissidents (who are dealt with), there are also artists willing to sellout, either by proclaiming their work apolitical, or by informing on their fellows. The playwright and actress whose love affair draws our attention seem to have found a way to overcome the social imperatives. They are "in love,” and they are able to maintain friendships with their arty friends while avoiding scrutiny from above.
Or so they think. In fact, the writer is the subject of a sweeping, covert surveillance. Over the course of the film, the various characters are forced to confront “bitter truths,” and must decide how to continue to live with the recognition of how much their lives are entwined with the State.
Ulrich Mühe plays the Stasi agent who spends much of the film eavesdropping on the lives of others. Mühe’s performance is a masterpiece of understated excellence. He seems completely subsumed by his role within the State; it is hard to tell if his unchanging demeanor is a way for him to keep the world of surveillance from turning itself on him, or if he has just internalized the State to such an extent that it is externalized on his face. His is the face of socialism.
Mühe is affected by the lives of others, though, and much of the film’s greatness comes from the way Mühe reflects the character’s changes with acting so subtle he might even fool his superiors.
This one received a mixture of comments: one person liked the movie, one owned it but hadn’t watched it, one found it disappointing, saying it was too “plot-heavy”. I admitted that I was rather devoted to narrative, so that part didn’t bother me.