Large-scale spying conducted by the state through monitoring the communications of its own citizens … sounds familiar, doesn’t it? The Lives of Others, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s debut feature film, accurately recreates a state which existed merely 17 years before the film’s 2006 release; however, its uncanny parallels to today’s world suggest that we never really left state-commissioned spying in the past despite its alleged extinction with the Soviet ideology.
Aesthetically, however, Donnersmarck presents a world that is 100% GDR. The whole film is a tapestry of soft beiges and sage greens, hues which act as a more genteel cover for the brooding militarism that lies beneath. The film has a dense atmosphere—there are no large spaces, no room is shown without its walls, no door is left open and each character appears to only have a 2foot space around them in which to express themselves.
Yet, under this austere, all-consuming surface of corrupt socialism, Donnersmarck reminds us that there were people who lived here—people with flesh and desires (and, incidentally, desires of the flesh), people who wanted liberation and who were as uncomfortable—to use a mild description--with the omniscient regime as the audience. Donnersmarck thus exhibits the human side of history, the side that is often left to the novel or covered in film underneath a shallow mask of patriotism that makes each death appear honourable. However, in this film, patriotism is the enemy—and, the deaths are far from honourable: they are acts of cowardice performed from the depths of desperation.
It was thus the first post-Soviet film that tackled the brutality in all of its shady detail, with Donnersmarck working on the assumption that 17 years acted as a sufficient period of time for people to mentally recuperate before they were faced with the reality of life on the other side of the wall. Its humour is therefore muted, present enough so as to avoid becoming a drooling drama but quiet enough to refrain from mocking the oddness of the pro-Soviet regime. Where the characters in Goodbye, Lenin! try to exhume a light-heartedness from an otherwise dismal situation, the characters in The Lives of Others resort to quietly and hopelessly rebelling against the regime with taut mouths and fatigued brows, accidently creating a humour in their own sternness. It is hence a surprise that the ending is as upbeat as it is (well, as upbeat as it possibly could be). To embrace that sickly cliché, it “warms the cockles of the heart” (whatever that even means) and reinforces just how damn fabulous freedom is. It also carries a clear message about the sympathetic capacity of the individual and how we seem to lose that affection in a group, but more importantly, it is just v v cute.
And of course, this review would not be complete without mention of Ulrich Mühe’s impressively stone-faced Captain Wiesler, a character who acts as a Samaritan in wolf’s clothing. Mühe’s jumps in behaviour from nervous eye flitting to concentrated, evil glares mirrors Wiesler’s split identity, as his humanitarian conscious battles it out with his allegiance. In his performance there is a lot to be said about human will overcoming societal constructs, and Donnersmarck exploits Wiesler’s duality to show that even the most hard-hearted individual has the innate ability to commiserate.
The Lives of Others truly is a film for our times, appearing as a scarily familiar truth in the light of the Snowden revelations. The set and costume may reek of the ‘80s--complete with Eastern European fur coats and boxed uniforms—but the people’s paranoia echoes those of many ordinary citizens living under the stare of the NSA or GCHQ. It also acts as an expert study in the human affliction over whether we should help others or, perhaps more selfishly, save ourselves. This affliction is apparent in Wiesler’s decision to help the Dreymans at the risk of his own safety, and in Crista-Maria’s more controversial decision to save herself—a decision that is suitably punished. It therefore creates a great paradox in that it exposes how the GDR’s pursuit of selfless socialism actually created a society full of determined individualists, acting to save themselves from the oppressive government. It is a comment on its own time and a comment on the present, its themes transcending time to find a freaky relevance in our modern day.