Das Leben der Anderen - The Lives of Others (2006)

Das Leben der Anderen - The Lives of Others (2006)

Postby CAP » Mon Jun 09, 2014 3:15 pm

Popular tale of East German police state oppression that took out an unmarked bag full of awards back in 2006, probably warranted. Give it 8. Still, when Hollywood likes something, you know something’s wrong. I was watching it again on disc thinking I’ll just watch a couple of reels for a bit of a break and then get back to work… :lol:

There are some movies I should never watch alone. This is one.

But let’s just run through the story before getting personal. The movie is about the surveillance of a (fictive) famous playwright, Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) in Berlin in 1984. He’s your average handsome but essentially dull liberal intellectual. He’s a bit like a head prefect actually. His apartment is thoroughly bugged by the State Security (Stasi) and constantly monitored by a team somewhere nearby in a deserted attic, led by Captain Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe). The story is really about the intensely repressed Wiesler, and Mühe’s performance is nothing short of spellbinding. Needless to say, he was a former East German or Ossi and this surely the peak of his sadly curtailed career. The actor died of cancer in 2007 at the age of 54. Apparently he starred in a long-running forensic crime series on German television, following reunification, which you can well believe. I guess with his looks and lack of hair he was always going to be cast as a public servant or manager of some kind. But it would have been great to have seen him in his youth, on stage (he had a reputation as a stage actor in East Germany) in something like Hamlet, whatever the German equivalent of Hamlet might be… Der Hamlet!

Anyway, getting back to the story, the surveillance is a bit odd in that nothing about Dreyman’s conduct has been a concern for the state. He is pro-communist although an acquaintance of known dissidents. The real reason for the surveillance is that a figure much higher up in the government has designs of Dreyman’s girlfriend, the beautiful and talented actress, Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck) and is looking for grounds to discredit or eliminate Dreyman as a way of recommending his own attentions to her. Well, that’s never going to work for a start. It’s like beating up a rival suitor and expecting the girl to then prefer you – never happens. But that’s not to say some guys won’t still try it. It’s the power trip really; they’re on it and can’t see why others won’t be. Oh foolish boys. Psychology apart, this is also a way of showing how the state’s surveillance powers were hopelessly abused by insiders. A monolithic government system only breeds a more manipulative socio-path is probably the intended sub-text. Communism! It’s just wrong boys and girls! Come over to the west where we believe in freedom and markets much less obviously monopolistic and privileged. Live the dream kids!

Yeah, you can quickly see why this was a hit, especially in Hollywood. Not that I want to excuse the Stasi, but East Germany was a state under siege, constantly being undermined by the west (read Amerika via Bonn) and in the end this is what happens: the system tries to quarantine itself but only ends up eating itself. It’s savage. Freedom is the first casualty of independence. And wow, the west looks so good in comparison, no? But this is actually a tale of good and bad corruption, strangely enough. It turns out mousy little Wiesler is a bit of a theatregoer, and familiar with the work of Frau Sieland, indeed an ardent fan. Listening to her regularly having sex with Dreyman is probably overstepping the line, even in the line of duty but Wiesler has no other life. As a Hauptmann in State Security, he is pretty much a social leper. Although living in a comfortable, high-rise flat, he has no real friends outside of the service, or indeed inside. He doesn’t trust them, for good reason. Everyone in his neighbourhood is too paranoid of him, for the same reason, and he of they. He has no wife or partner. His apartment is personality-free, no more than a hotel room. He is unbearably alone. Occasionally he phones in enormous whores, but only for the briefest sessions, a financial consideration presumably. But his needs are more emotional than physical; he craves succour, comfort as much as a quick shag. It is truly madly deeply pathetic. He lives the Kafkaesque nightmare with icy Prussian dedication.

Meanwhile Christa Sieland is still holding out on big daddy, so he decides to use her minor drug addiction as leverage or revenge. What a guy. Dreyman on the other hand is shattered when an old colleague blacklisted in the regular capitalist witch hunts, commits suicide. He decides to write an article on suicide in East Germany for Der Spiegel – the notorious Hamburg-based weekly (or weakly) investigative journal. They regularly published articles smuggled out from the east; have it down to a fine art. They send a man over via the grapevine, with a special miniature typewriter, new to Stasi’s files on writer’s typewriters. These guys are thorough! This is in case the article is discovered by Stasi at the border crossing; it cannot be traced to a listed East German writer. All Dreyman has to do is ensure that the typewriter is not discovered in his apartment. At that point he still believes he is above surveillance. So he writes the exposé on growing suicide rates among artists and intellectuals and it’s published to the predictable scandal and Stasi then use their man inside Der Spiegel (takes a German… as they say) to obtain a copy of the manuscript and analyse the typewriter characteristics. Actually this scene is one of my favourites – the anal little typewriter expert (Zack Volker Michalowski) complete with easel display and pointer runs through his stuff in Wiesler’s boss’s office, before scuttling away. The boss’s name is Anton Grubitz (Ulrich Turkur) your stereotypical fat arrogant pig, played with a certain relish, or perhaps nostalgia. These guys know their market.

But then Sieland spills the beans under interrogation. They pull her in for possession of some sort of narcotic and threaten to end her career unless she co-operates. Hmm, where have I heard that before? She signs on as a ‘voluntary’ Stasi informant and fingers Dreyman over The Spiegel article. The goons storm round to Dreyman’s apartment and ransack the place but don’t discover an unlisted typewriter. Rather than just grill Sieland again for a hiding place, Grubitz for some reason decides Wiesler will do a better job debriefing her. The catch is, Wiesler has already introduced himself to Sieland, in an effort to reassure her of her talent so that she may resist the threats of big daddy, stay with Dreyman and believe in her success on merit rather than connections. He followed her into a little bar not far from Dreyman’s apartment one night after the two had quarrelled over these things. But breaking cover like that is obviously completely against the rules. Should Sieland mention their previous meeting in the interview, Wiesler is in the poo, big time. So this looms as a pivotal encounter but never quite lives up to expectations. Part of the problem is Gedeck is a little too distant; we never really get to the vulnerability needed here. It might be the script, it might be novice director Florian Henkel von Donnersmarck (probably the world’s tallest director, if not longest named) or it might be the actress, but there is a weak link in that loop somewhere. We should be getting more from her but for some reason it feels like she’s holding back. I don’t recall seeing Gedeck in other things, so it’s hard to say.

But in terms of story, no mention is made of their previous meeting in the interview, it’s not even clear that Sieland recognises Wiesler, frustratingly. But she does reveal the typewriter’s hiding place for some reason – why she didn’t reveal it first time is a bit puzzling. Is it Wiesler’s presence that tacitly reassures her this time? That’s getting a bit too subtle, but I’d have to check with a German speaker to be sure. This time they escort her around to Dreyman’s but somehow Wiesler has had time to leave before them, get to the apartment and remove the incriminating typewriter. We never do find out where he takes it or how he can have known that Dreyman won’t be in his apartment. Grubitz and Team Trench Coat go through a pantomime of searching the place again, with Dreyman present, to finally check under a couple of floorboards in a doorway. Oh! What have we here? Sieland excuses herself before seeing that the hiding place is empty, wracked with guilt, goes outside and pretty much walks under a passing lorry. Splat. Wiesler is hanging around outside and is first on the scene. Dreyman is devastated, naturally. It is, of course, a complete fiasco for Grubitz and he quickly suspects Wiesler, probably because of his prompt departure from the interrogation centre. He can’t prove anything though. But he can demote Wiesler regardless of evidence to the most menial position in Stasi which is steaming open letters, in some gloomy basement.

Fast forward five years and The Wall comes down, Stasi are disbanded and Wiesler finds work as a postman, not inappropriately. Dreyman learns that his apartment was bugged back in 1984 from big daddy, at some sort of Ossi reunion and starts to do a little research, as is then possible through public access of Stasi files. You can find out who was secretly spying on you and what they accused you of, if you’ve got the time to sift through all the paperwork. Dreyman learns of Sieland’s confessions but also realises that she could not have removed the typewriter before the Stasi arrived for the second search. So who did? He also notices that spurious summaries of his writings, including a play he was pretending to co-write, as a pretext for meetings with dissident colleagues, have been added by an agent identified as HGW XX/7. The last report, tellingly, carries a red stain, either blood (Sieland’s?) or from the missing typewriter’s red ribbon – either way the date arouses Dreyman’s suspicions. Further delving reveals HGW XX/7 to be Wiesler and from there Dreyman tracks him to his postal rounds, but for some reason he cannot approach him. Two years later, he publishes a new book and dedicates it to HGW XX/7 and Wiesler, on seeing it promoted in a bookshop window, opens it to discover the dedication. He buys a copy, and when asked if he would like it gift-wrapped, replies, “No, it’s for me”.

That’s where the movie ends and we’re supposed see Wiesler as heroic in a small way for perverting the course of the Stasi’s investigation but of course Dreyman is not about to help him any further than a veiled dedication and Wiesler’s intervention could not save Sieland, the one he seemed to truly care about, so it’s pretty feeble consolation all told. Where does that leave us? Big corruption only encouraging smaller ones? Everyone secretly pursuing private agendas pretending to serve the public interest? – doesn’t sound so different from the west really. Ironically, Mühe claimed to have discovered a Stasi file on himself in which his then wife is listed as a voluntary informer, although it did not seem to have hindered his career in East Germany too much. Still, he found it difficult to maintain the marriage, understandably and something of this surely adds intensity to his performance. Many victims of Stasi persecution were offended by a sympathetic portrayal of a key agent, so the movie is daring in that regard, takes a more nuanced view of such people.

But blaming these things on a socialist republic doesn’t make capitalist democracies any freer or more just. Germany may have been looking for something a little smug and congratulatory about poor little East Germany, but reunification has hardly been plain sailing. We get nearer the point there. And looking further abroad the case does not get any stronger. When you consider parallel developments like Peter Wright’s book Spycatcher, published in 1987, exposing a lot of dirty laundry inside MI5 and the alarming scope allowed field officers, on the understanding they would never be caught, the difference is negligible. Who is to say private agendas didn’t drive just as many of those escapades? The cover-ups we’ll probably never uncover. Secrecy invites indulgence and betrayal. And yes, there will be kindly, helpful souls inside the system, but that can’t excuse the harm done to innocent victims by some self-righteous sociopath. Should we play jump on a tube and shoot the first Brazilian you see, just in case he’s a terrorist? That’s supposed to be an honest mistake made by a ‘trained’ expert, right? Now look at all those declared communists or socialists that are quietly denied places or promotion in the civil serivce or academia after a quiet word from Whitehall. You don't know those calls? I do. Or is it a car full of Special Branch tyros stopping you out on Homerton Road in the middle of the night and pretending to be American tourists asking for directions, but utterly failing to get the accent? What were they looking for, why pick on you in a tracksuit jogging? Don’t ask. They will flash their headlights from the other side of Hackney Marshes, nudge, nudge, wink, wink before speeding away from the nearest thing to a camping site, if that's what they really wanted. Don’t ask when the old COI suddenly advance you two weeks wages somehow knowing you have nothing in your bank balance. How does that work again? Oh yeah angels in the system, don’t try and thank them right over there in Holborn, it’s too embarrassing.

Paranoia – it’s got nothing to do with totalitarianism.

I was sitting there still staring at the screen sometime after the credits rolled up. Seething. Eventually I realised what was really missing from the portrait of a pathetic little nobody like Wiesler was more evidence of his love of the theatre. We never see any of his sensitive side, apart from his earnest encouragement to Sieland. But that has to be what sustains him. There is nothing else to the man. All the same Mühe nails that steely inner discipline, that watchful, fearful surveillance of all comers. Other people’s lives – what can you measure them against? If I ever change my avatar, I might use him. We are almost the same age, not unalike, hairlines getting there. The only difference is he’s dead. :twisted:
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