Last week I saw one of the most talked about German movies this year, Das Leben Der Anderen by debuting director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. The movie is set in the last waning years of East Germany, the DDR, and is highly recommended: It works on almost all levels and the emotional impact is simply stunning. This is one of cinema’s great morality tales – and a very succesful story of profound character change.
The central character is the Stasi captain Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühn in an amazing performance, at once sad and up-tight) a stoic, hard-working intelligence officer, who has spent much of his time passing on the subtler methods of the fight against “the enemies of socialism” to class after class of wide-eyed and well-meaning college students about to become enrolled in the East German secret service.
The relentless portrayal of most of the Stasi-employed as quite normal human beings just wanting to do their bit for society, is one of the movie’s most succesful narrative devices, and it tells us a lot more about life in a dictatorship than a portrayal of Stasi as ruthless thugs would do. In fact we never even see a gun or a really physically threathing move by a Stasi agent, and yet the menace and fear corrupting every corner of the socialist republic is overpowering and omnipresent. The movie does has its share of villians, though, with the Minister of Culture Hempf (Thomas Thieme) coming close to the diabolical – and therefore a touch cliched.
Minister Hempf at one point remarks that “people never change” which is why he feels superior to naive artists like stageplay-author Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch), who believes in the good of humanity, and who’s beautiful girlfriend Hempf covets and uses his power to take sexual control of. Hempf feels secure in his power and position and his apparent cynical knowledge of human nature, but the joke is really upon him, because what “Das Leben Der Anderen” shows through it’s dramatic narrative is exactly the ability to change through the involvement in the lives of others.
The introvert and apparently uncorruptable Hauptmann Wiesler becomes involved in the life of Dreyman when he takes upon himself to find dirt on the almost irritatingly innocent Dreyman. Dirt in the East German sense meaning some kind of independent, free-thinking thought, which Dreyman seems to be lacking. Although he apparently is the best play-wright in the DDR, he is clueless to the evils of the regime – or perhaps more to the point: He is clueless to his own responsiblity to use his powers as a talented author to fight against the evils of the regime. But only for a while, and soon Hempf does really have reasons to worry.
Through his involvement with Dreyman, Wiesler does change and takes an about-face that is at the same time both astonishing and satisfyingly logical: After all, as Dreyman comments, no one who has listened to Beethovens “Appasionata” could commit a truly evil act. Wiesler is exposed to the beauty that is denied him in his drab East German life, and this changes him forever, or at least gives him the will – perhaps “will” is not even the right word, and moral obligation is better – to do the right thing. This all sounds very heavy-handed, but the amazing thing about “Das Leben Der Anderen” is that it succeeds in making very high-flying moral issues totally believeable by binding them to character’s really quite mundane actions. It’s an amazing feat and has to be seen to be believed. A must see.