January 04, 2008

"Lives of Others" by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck - A Portrait of Stasi Operations; perhaps McCarthyism Revisited?

This movie had to be special since it outdid other foreign films films like Pan's Labyrinth and Water at the 2006 Oscar Awards!

Lives of Others, a German film, by writer director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, has won numerous awards and nominations, and for a reason; it is truly a film that captures ones imagination by presenting the nightmare which was East Germany in the late eighties and early nineties during the Stasi era. The tactics and procedures used by the Stasi undermined humanity and civilized behavior which included the psychological breaking down of a fellow human being simply on the grounds of suspicion. "Lives of Others", set in this period, revolves around a playwright, Dreyman, who is perhaps the last man standing among his peers, most of who have been either imprisoned or sent to undisclosed locations for interrogation for their suspected involvement in anti state activities. Many 'blacklisted' artists, not willing to suffocate their art, had chosen the extreme way out and had committed suicide. It is one such suicide, of Dreyman's friend and fellow writer who, not being able to handle ostracism from the writing community, hangs himself, and that catapults Dreyman, the moderate, into action; he decides to do the forbidden: write about the growing suicides rates among artists in GDR! What Dreyman does or does not do is basically the plot of the film. However, what makes this movie special is that Dreyman, despite being the focus of the plot, may not be the chief protagonist of the film! Lives of Others has a near mute, rarely visible, and seldom opining protagonist, Captain Wiesler, who side lined in the plot, is pivotal to the theme of the movie. The dexterity with which von Donnersmarck completely upstages the apparent plot by an incisive theme is to be marveled at. Dreyman, the action maker, is but a puppet, used for establishing the raison d'etre of Wiesler, the main protagonist.

The fates of characters like the young recruit in the lunchroom, the beautiful Crista-Maria, and the dutiful Captain Wiesler paint a fearful picture of East Germany enveloped in a cloud of moral vacuum, cultural darkness, and rampant suspicion. It is a society under seige; totalitarianism at its worst where every human weakness is exploited, and confused and entrapped citizens are forced to make impossible choices like Crista-Maria having to betray her lover!


Ulrich Muje, as the Stasi Captain, has done a remarkable job by underplaying the tenderest and the grimmest of human emotion in the film. There is no outward rendering of any extreme human feeling through out the film; yet, the audience is held spellbound in a labyrinth of powerful human emotions. Even at the end, the movie does not let go of you: Why did Dreyman not introduce himself to Wiesler? What made Captain Wiesler, an acclaimed officer with the Stasi, do what he did? Why this title?

Why the particular title, and what did von Donnersmarck wish to convey through this movie? I am still in the grey regarding the title, but I do think that the last line in the movie is a give away to what the writer wanted us to take away from the film: “Es ist für mich”—“It’s for me.” An implicit warning that a situation like the one in the movie could happen again, and one of us could be its victim and be saying "It's for me." Ironically enough, it is Minister Hempf who earlier on in the film says, "Men don't change", and that is the fear. Somewhere underneath our veneer of civility there lurks a darkness, that if unleashed, can easily bring about a Stasi network or a McCarthy era; the Patriot Act of recent times is perhaps a close contender. Yet, von Donnersmarck does not leave us bereft of hope because Dreyman does dedicate his book "Sonata of a Good Man" to Captain Wiesler who also graciously and proudly accepts it saying “Es ist für mich” (It's for me). An ambiguity no doubt, as it is both, an assertion of hope and also a note of warning.

A movie definitely worth watching!

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

Good review!

I have seen this movie and it really hit me hard. I would recommend it.

Lash said...

we are planning a film festival at our institute.. I am happy that you put up such a nice write up about the movie... Lives of Others is available at the Brit Library here..

Planet Apex said...

Hi, this my first time here. it's a nice blog though I don't agree with your earlier posting about your champions like wafa sultan and co.

EXSENO said...

I sounds like a a two thumbs up. I watch out for it.

ToneLoc said...

Just to clarify your comment that "Wiesler is the protagonist."

The protagonist in this story is Hempf.

His objective is to destroy his romantic competitor, Dreyman. This objective creates the entire story, though it takes on political colors.

His antagonist - the character who compromises the protagonist's above objective - is Wiesler.

saurabhj said...

Very shockingly, this movie came to my city in India - with no film festival going on.

I saw the movie recently and really loved it. The inter-twining of emotions and the way the characters played their parts was enthralling.

Even though the movie was extremely passive for most parts, it was "literally" edge of the seat entertainment.

And yes, the slow, dark creeping fear that there could be a third person listening on you, reading your logs, analysing your data usage (in todays world) - gives me a very eerie feeling.

I especially loved the ending when Wiesler opens the book, buys it and says "It's for me" :)

Definitely recommended.