East Berlin circa 1984 was, per The Lives of Others’ somber palette and perma-drizzle, a gray, gray place. Partly the dull greens and beiges reflect life in a state run in large part by the Stasi, the German Democratic Republic’s all-permeating network of spooks and informants: only the character who’s already been blacklisted dares leave his room in disarray; the brightest color in the film is the red ink of a forbidden typewriter. And partly the aversion to ostentation originates with writer-director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, who, sober and purposeful, takes his audience by the hand and leads them through life in a secret police state.
His screenplay, Teutonic in its efficiency, opens with Stasi op Gerd Weisler (diligent Ulrich Mühe) demonstrating interrogation techniques for a class of trainees — at once setting a scene of Big Brotherhood, introducing a protagonist of meticulous Party-line adherence, and planting methods that will reappear later in the proceedings, one of many instances of Chekhovian feng shui. That night Weisler goes to a play, surveys the scene with opera glasses, and by the time he leaves the theater has been assigned to monitor the playwright and lead actress, politically squeaky-clean power couple Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) and Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck).
When Donnersmarck starts intercutting between bugger and buggee answering the same phone call, it’s clear that Weisler’s developing some sympathy pangs. He also gets a nudge from the baldly stated motives of his immediate superior, a fawning careerist kowtowing to his boss, who mouth-breathes his way through a transactional rape scene with Sieland. (Pop Quiz: Is Donnersmarck cannily suggesting that corrupt ministers equate sexual possession of a woman with political power, or lazily using the former as a metaphor for the latter? Discuss.)
As Dreyman starts to scratch his subversive itch, and cog Weisler tries to rein in the Stasi machine, an omniscient perspective catalogues their miscalculations and the accumulating dramatic ironies. Donnersmarck’s camera moves lockstep with his structural symmetries, pointing out echoes (backseat script doctors are going to have a field day with this one), and cuing the orchestra. The Lives of Others is a model of self-containment and moral responsibility — so much so that it starts to feel like a filmed syllabus.
Some will likely find these Surveillance State Blues a rhetorically useful parallel to our own climate of government snoopery, but that’s a secondary resonance for a film that’s primarily an act of domestic catharsis. (In a coda, Dreyman views his own Stasi file, an opportunity of which 1.5 million Germans have thus far availed themselves.) In the former G.D.R., The Lives of Others was attended by schoolchildren on field trips and praised for its point-by-point indictment of a regime some prefer to rationalize. Donnersmarck’s dutifulness, then, aligns him with the West German culture of denazification, and accompanying noble cinematic guilt trips like Downfall and Sophie Scholl: The Final Days. Not coincidentally, those were Germany’s previous entrants for the Best Foreign Film Oscar, an award for which The Lives of Others has just been nominated — being a German filmmaker, it seems, means always having to say you’re sorry.
Opens February 9 at Angelika Film Center