The Lives of Others is Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's first film. I found this out only after I had seen the movie and while I was a bit shocked, I was also very humbled. The feeling was similar to what I used to feel when watching a match in which Zidane was in particularly good form . You are in the presence of genius, you feel absolutely talent less and useless and yet you feel lucky that you are seeing that kind of brilliance. Watching The Lives of Others was a similar experience. Of all the movies I have seen that came out last year, this one is by far the best. (And yes, I thought it was better than Pan’s Labyrinth).
The movie is set in East Germany circa 1984, a time when the East German statsi operated in full force (at the time, the movie informs us, it employed more than ninety thousand personnel). It dwells not only on the lives of those observed by the state machinery but the observers as well. Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe), is a statsi official. A good one at that. He fits the ideal of such a secret service policeman – unflinching in his belief in the state, unmoved by torture, unwilling to trust anyone.
So unwilling to trust, that on attending a performance of a play by Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) he suggests spying on the playwright. This despite the fact that Dreyman enjoys state patronage and in the words of an official “is the only non subversive writer we have”. It is thus, then, that Wiesler becomes exposed to each and every aspect of Dreymans life, art and relationship with his girlfriend and the actress of his plays, Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck).
It’s a scary picture of life in the Orwellian world. Dreymans credentials don’t put him beyond the grasp of surveillance. As a woman, as an actress even more so, Sieland has her own bargains to make. And despite his devotion to the state, or rather because of it, Wiesler lives an utterly lonely and miserable existence. They are similar in that they are all vulnerable at their core. In a sense they are all at someone else’s mercy, they can never be in full control of their destiny.
A number of themes run through The Lives of Others, most importantly (and subtly) the incompatibility between art and an authoritarian state and the disillusionment that ensues. Circumstances eventually push Dreyman towards dissent. Wiesler’s commitment to the state starts wavering. As a result of some kind of Stockholm syndrome from listening in on the conversations of the artists or a slow reaction to reading the copy of Brecht he has stolen from Dreyman, one can only guess.
The most hauntingly beautiful scene in the movie, and its turning point, is when Dreyman on learning of his friend’s suicide plays a composition called Sonata for a Good Man on his piano. He tells the story of Lenin, who refused to listen to Beethoven’s Appassionata because he feared it would stop him from carrying out the revolution. No man who has ever listened, truly listened, to such music could be bad , says Dreyman. Wiesler, listening in, weeps silently.
The scene sets the tone for the rest of the movie, and it somehow connects you to the characters you see on the screen. Twenty minutes later, I was the one who was weeping silently, watching the events of the movie unfold. There is such humanity, beauty and bitter sweet poignancy to the story that one would have to be made of stone not to be touched by it. Wiesler is the centre of the story and Ulrich Mühe’s fabulous, fabulous turn is one reason why the movie works so well. Gabriel Yard’s wonderful score is another. If Lenin is Wiesler, then the Appassionata becomes Yard’s Sonata for a Good Man. The movie however, tells the story that might have been had Lenin listened to Beethoven. The reference to the Appassionata is particularly apt; The Lives of Others encompasses all the emotions of Beethoven's Sonata No.23. The story it tells is about the people who are trying to fight and overcome the terrible and despairing circumstances they find themselves in.
 Bad analogy I know, but watching Zidane in form is watching true grace and beauty.
 This I truly, truly believe.
 The movie reminded me of something my piano teacher used to say. Mozart was pure genius and Bach’s works are the embodiment of baroque but nothing compares to Beethoven in pure, simple heartbreaking beauty.
 Interestingly, Mühe’s wife spied on him for the Statsi for the entire period of their marriage, supplying them with hundreds of pages of information.
 The topic of the authoritarian state has been recurring over the last week. Not just in The Lives of Others, but also in Tahar Ben Jelloun’s This Blinding Absence of Light, which I just finished reading. Jelloun won the 2004 IMPAC Dublin Award for the book and its one of the most stark, simple and disturbing books I have ever read. (The only other time I felt so claustrophobic while reading a book was when I was reading Andre Gide’s Strait is the Gate.) I wanted to write about the book but I’m not sure I can. I am still quite disturbed by it; especially by the fact that it’s based on a true story. I really don’t know why I continue to be shocked by the barbarity of the human race.