It's incredible to think that this is Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's first film. Both as screenwriter and director he places himself amongst the heavyweights. I frequently declare my disregard for plot lines, but with The Lives of Others I was stunned by the story itself, not to mention the inspired storytelling, which really is a compliment from me; Donnersmarck is a natural.
In The Lives of Others, we travel back to 1984, to the German Democratic Republic (or East Germany), where a Socialist Police State (Stasi) wields its power with swaggering arrogance. The theatre and its writers, directors and actors are all under surveillance and must tread the party line, lest they be "black-listed". For the "artists", this is the worst fate imaginable, for what is a director when he cannot direct? In this impressively well-wrought tale, we peer into the worlds on either side of the battle: we watch the Stasi watch the artists, watching out for the Stasi.
I should probably start supplying some names round about now, before launching into an unashamed panegyric (which coincidentally is my new favourite word). Officer Gerd Weisler (Ulrich Mühe) offers to tail playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) and his actress partner Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck), who have been playing the game suspiciously well according to his Stasi bosses. With Dreyman's apartment under the highest level of auditory surveillance, Weisler settles down in his den, armed with headphones and a typewriter, prepared to note down all the incriminating evidence he can. The only problem? These artists are far too good at hiding their subversion.
Gradually, we become more and more acquainted with the most intimate and complex aspects of Drayman and Sieland's art, relationships and loyalties. To begin with, we mainly observe their lives over Wiesler's shoulder. We hear only what he hears; we become increasingly gripped by the drama of their lives as he begins to sympathise with his perceived enemy; and we can't bear the gaps in knowledge which come in between his shifts at the controls. We breathe easy when he does, knowing they've escaped detection, his relief coming as a surprise to us all, most of all to Weisler himself.
But, when did Weisler's loyalties change? Have they really? Or is this a one-time thing, as he promises himself, allowing a known enemy to defect to the West? The shift is gradual, but reflected openly in Weisler's wardrobe (shades of grey) and stature (slowly relaxing, losing rigidity). When Weisler is fully aware of his (identity?) crisis, Dreyman steps forward and takes the screen for himself, in scenes where the Stasi are totally absent and conspiracies can unfold undetected. This shift is achieved with such a dexterity of storytelling that I'm really feeling my inability to analyse/explain it.
Let's take a different tack; I need to get this across somehow. Donnersmarck presents his characters to us in a combination of force and subtlety: the drama and tension are raw, but the techniques are cooked to perfection. He doesn't hit us about the head with cheap sentimentality or pithy witticisms. We're offered an almost gentle insight into the characters' darkest recesses, their fears and vulnerability presented to us for inspection. Oh interesting. Just writing that I wonder if we, the audience, are the Stasi of the film world. Safe behind the two-way mirror, demanding to know all.
OK, suffice it to say, Donnersmarck can tell a story. But what else is going on? Well, a lot, but I doubt I caught it all... I'd planned to "go off on one" about what the film says about art, how it can be productive, and how it is produced, but I think I've already used too much of your attention span. I'll be brief. Dreyman, playwright, must tread very carefully to protect his work and reputation. His circle of friends all fear being cut off from their fields, to be "black-listed". Their respective forms of art are how they speak out, how they interpret and represent all that surrounds them; what if that outlet is cut off? How can you achieve anything approaching truth when ideologically restricted? And yet, it is in the peace time that Dreyman's work suffers. He cannot write after the wall has come down: "nothing to believe in... nothing to rebel against". Not until he learns the full truth of his past can he again be productive, when he can reinterpret the restriction. In all this, art becomes loaded with issues of identity, craftsmanship and purpose. I wish I'd studied film properly, then I'd know how to write that nicely for you.
Let's wrap this up now: I'll leave you with encouragement to watch this incredible film which has just become one of my favourites (if you couldn't tell). If for nothing else, watch it for the reassuring uncertainty that comes with it. The anxiety I felt for the characters was refreshingly genuine; it's been a long time since I cared what happened plot-wise. Needless to say, I'm going to be thinking about this for quite some time...