The former East Germany, a relatively small country of 16 million people, was controlled by the most sophisticated, cunning, and thorough secret police the world has ever seen, the East German Ministerium für Staatsicherheit, or "Stasi." The Stasi had about 90,000 employees — a staggering number for such a small population — but even more importantly, recruited a network of hundreds of thousands of "unofficial employees," who submitted secret reports on their co-workers, bosses, friends, neighbors, and even family members. Some did so voluntarily, but many were bribed or blackmailed into collaboration.
In a totalitarian country plagued by shortages, the State lavished funds and training on Stasi agents. They did sometimes resort to physical violence and torture, especially in the basement of the infamous Hohenschönhausen prison in Berlin. However, such drastic measures were rarely necessary — the Stasi could usually get the information it obsessively sought from a meek and terrorized population by doling out (or withholding) State favors: university slots for parents of teenage children, painkillers for closet addicts, or perhaps a visa to visit relatives in the West.
Das Leben der Anderen, ("The Life of Others") German director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s debut, builds this painful legacy into a fascinating, moving film. In its moral seriousness, artistic refinement, and depth, Das Leben der Anderen simply towers over other recent German movies, and urgently deserves a wide international release. The fulcrum of the movie (but probably not its most important character) is Georg Dreyman, an up-and-coming East German playwright in his late 30s. Played by the square-jawed Sebastian Koch, Dreyman is an (apparently) convinced socialist who’s made his peace with the regime. His plays are either ideologically neutral or acceptable, and he’s even received State honors.
Although he is a collaborator, he is also a Mensch. He uses his ideological "cleanliness" to intervene on behalf of dissidents such as his journalist friend Paul Hauser (Hans-Uwe Bauer). These unfortunates must contend with every humiliation a totalitarian state can invent: their apartments are bugged, friends and family are recuited to inform on them, and chances to publish or perform can be extinguished by one stray comment from a Central Committee member. The most recalcitrant can be kicked out of the country and stripped of their citizenship, like the singer songwriter Wolf Biermann.
Dreyman lives in a shabby-genteel, book-filled apartment with his girlfriend Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck), a renowned actress who often appears in his plays. At the beginning of the movie, Dreyman himself comes under the regime’s suspicion, for reasons that become clear only later. The fearful machinery of the Stasi rumbles to life: his movements are recorded, and his apartment bugged. The Stasi had bugging down to a science: a team of meticulously-trained agents swoop into your apartment when you’re not there, install miniscule, undetectable listening devices in every single room — including the bathroom — and vanish in less than an hour, leaving no trace. Agents set up an secret electronic command post nearby, keeping a written record of every joke, argument, or lovemaking session.
The "operative process" against Dreyman is overseen by Stasi captain Gerd Wiesler, played by Ulrich Mühe, an actor from the former East who was himself once in the Stasi’s cross-hairs. Captain Wiesler starts the film as a colorless, icy, tight-lipped professional who shows no mercy in fighting the "enemies of socialism": if he needs to interrogate a suspect for 10 hours without sleep to get a confession, he will do so — and then place the seat-cover the suspect sat on in a vacuum jar in case the miscreant should later need to be tracked by bloodhounds. At night, Captain Wiesler returns to his tiny apartment in an grubby, anonymous high-rise. He settles himself among his inexpressibly drab furniture, eats a meal squeezed out of a plastic tube while watching reports about agricultural production, and then goes to bed alone.
As Captain Wiesler listens to Dreyman and his girlfriend he begins to like them, or perhaps envy the richness and depth of their lives in comparison with his own. Perhaps he also begins to wonder why a stranger should have the right to become privy to Dreyman’s most intimate secrets: his occasional impotence, his girlfriend’s infidelities, his artistic crises. At the same time, though, Wiesler is under pressure: a Central Committee official has made it clear to Wiesler and his toadying supervisor Lieutenant Colonel Grubitz (Ulrich Tukur), that Dreyman has to go down. Some traces of Prussian law-and-order principles survived the transition to "really existing socialism": although the "crimes" dissidents could be punished for were absurd totalitarian creations, the state required genuine proof of them — a tirade, a discussion of forbidden literature, or the worst crime of them all — writing an article critical of the East German regime and smuggling it to West Germany for publication. Of course, if surveillance didn’t turn up a political indiscretion, it would almost certainly turn up personal ones perfectly suited to blackmail.
I won’t discuss more plot details, as there are unexpected twists. Each of the main characters is drawn deeper into the conflict between Dreyman and the State, and each is torqued by loyalty conflicts that intensify as the pressure increases. The cast is outstanding. Sebastian Koch finds the right combination of poetic detachment and watchful sophistication for Dreyman. Martina Gedeck, as his girlfriend, has the most challenging role, since she’s buffeted from all sides: by her suspicious partner, by Stasi agents trying to turn her, and by a lecherous Culture Minister. Ulrich Mühe plays the Stasi agent’s transformation with reserve, only hinting at the stages in his character’s secret, but decisive, change of heart.
Director von Donnersmarck, a blue-blooded West German, has re-created the grey, drained look of the former East, and the nature of Stasi intimidation, with a fidelity that has earned the praise of East Germans. His pacing is relaxed, but doesn’t drag; although there are a few longueurs, most scenes unfold at just the right pace, and there are several great set-pieces. One is a bone-rattling episode in the Stasi canteen in which a young recruit is caught telling a joke about East German premier Erich Honecker. Another is the penultimate scene, a masterstroke in which Dreyman gains access to his massive Stasi file, while reading it, suddenly understands episodes of his own life which had never made sense to him before. The ending is perfectly judged; bittersweet and moving without swelling strings or teary confessions.
Das Leben der Anderen is an outstanding movie, probably a great one. Go see it now.