"The Lives of Others": A Requiem for the Heroes of the Old East By Steven Yates

in 36th Kiev Molodist-International Film Festival

by Steven Yates

The final film of the competition program could well have taken the mantle of winner, were it not for such strong films as Euphoria (Eyforiya), Fresh Air (Friss levego), already a FIPRESCI winner, and 12:08 East of Bucharest (A fost sau n-a fost). However, The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen) also deserves acclaim for replicating an era of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) which ended when its director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck was only 16 years old. The story is engaging; the film dramatically builds tension and keeps us constantly fixed to the screen throughout its 137 minutes.

It is November 1984 in East Berlin, a full five years before the fall of the wall. The GDR has cold and merciless ways of keeping its population under control and to obey the system of communism that has been omnipresent in the country since 1949. The opening scene exemplifies this world when a man is reduced to tears after 50 hours of questioning by the East German secret police (known as the Stasi) when he finally reveals his accomplice. The Stasi believe that if a person is innocent they will get angrier the longer they are questioned and break down if they are guilty.

Georg Dreymann (Sebastian Koch) is a successful playwright and open-minded liberal. With his girlfriend Christa Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck), who is a famous actress herself, they almost make a celebrity couple be it not for the fact that this is the GDR. Dreymann has become aware of the number of suicides by people in his country, something that the GDR failed to acknowledge since 1977 by a process of tight censorship. At a party to celebrate his latest play, Georg encounters Minister Bruno Hempf who crudely declares his attraction towards Christa. He also orders the loyal Oberstleutnant Anton Grubitz to have Dreymann watched closely in an attempt to discredit him. This task falls to Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler (or HGW XX/7 as he will become known) played by Ulrich Mühe) an ambitious member of the Stasi looking for promotion.

The film gradually switches from Dreymann as main protagonist to Wiesler inadvertently sharing his struggle while secretly listening to conversations at Dreymann’s home. It is Wiesler who will find himself caught between both sides of the oppression in the East Germany of the Cold War period and slowly get drawn into the lives of those he is secretly listening to. Though only five years from its end, the oppression of its regime is at its height. In the pre-Gorbachev years, the fear of all its citizens can be felt in the intimidating presence of the ruthless Bruno Hempf and his compatriot Anton Grubitz. Given that this is also von Donnersmarck’s first film, it is a mature piece with some of the production values of big-budget works. If we look at his biography to date we can see why. He studied under Richard Attenborough, got a degree in Philosophy from Oxford University before attending film school in Munich, for which this is his graduation film, though the project had been conceived eight years earlier. The year in which this film is set is 1984. Would it be just a coincidence on the director’s part that like George Orwell’s book, this East Berlin is a world where parts of the communist philosophy would read like his famous novel set in the same year? Also, the book’s proclaiming beliefs like: “War is Peace”, “Freedom is Slavery”, “Ignorance is Strength” are not out of place in this GDR world.

Ultimately, this film is the antidote to the feel good comedies Sun Alley (Sonnenallee, 1999) and Goodbye Lenin that are arguably nostalgic for this era before East Germany looked to the West. In fact, reportedly amongst some people in East Germany there has been a feeling of “Ostalgie” (meaning nostalgia) in recent years for the former “Ost” (East) carried over into TV shows and consumer souvenirs that have ranged from T-shirts to communist champagne. This sober film should be a timely reminder of those who look back to this era with some sentiment, remembering just how harrowing a life it was.

Though seemingly produced on a larger budget, The Lives of Others certainly created more of a buzz at its Molodist screening than the other more critically acclaimed German film in the main competition, Matthias Luthardt’s PingPong. That film has been short listed for the European Film Awards but had a lukewarm reception from the audience in Kiev. The Lives of Others has by contrast won the audience award in Locarno and Warsaw, so is another popular film with the FIPRESCI jury at Kiev already recognized and awarded elsewhere. It created a big sensation at the Telluride film festival as well and wouldn’t be any surprise if it was nominated for more awards and worldwide distribution, thereby underlining its popularity and appeal in what is arguably the most accessible film about the old East Germany so far.