—Stasi boss Erich Mielke, Ministry head from November 1957 to November 1989
The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen) is an award-winning German film from 2006. It is the debut film of screenwriter and director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck.The film takes place in state-socialist East Germany and tells the story of Captain Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe), a stoic officer of the Secret Police, Ministerium für Staatssicherheit (also known as The Stasi). His job is to find and interrogate "enemies of socialism", people with Western sympathies or just plain wrong opinions. He is ordered by friend and superior Anton Grubitz to carry out a spying operation against playwright Georg Dreyman, whom they suspect is not what he seems. Wiesler and his men install numerous microphones in Dreyman's apartment, and his life is filled with sitting in the attic, listening in on Dreyman and his girlfriend, actress Christa-Maria Sieland.Eventually, Wiesler starts to warm up to the couple, noticing how empty and emotionless his own life is. He learns the real reason behind the operation, a jealous minister in love with Christa-Maria trying to get rid of his rival, and is disillusioned by his colleagues' selfish motivations. After the suicide of his director friend Albert Jerska, Dreyman decides to do something about the state's rigid censorship and writes an article about the secret suicide rates of East Germany for Western publications. Wiesler has to take more and more radical measures to protect him while Grubitz becomes increasingly suspicious of him.The Lives of Others won seven Deutscher Filmpreis awards and the Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 2006. It has been praised for its portrayal of Stasi, its employees and its victims as human beings trapped in an unforgiving dictatorship. Although the story is widely considered narmy by actual survivors of Stasi methods (no Stasi agent has ever been publicly known to regret his actions, let alone help his victims), the film gives a very heartfelt portrayal of life in socialist East Germany.
Anti-Hero: Wiesler is working for the bad guys, but the story is about his journey into heroism.
Big Bad Duumvirate: Minister of Culture Bruno Hempf and Wiesler's superior, Anton Grubitz, who both personify the pervasive corruption and moral apathy sustaining East Germany's authoritarian system.
Big Bad Friend: Played with and ultimately subverted with Anton Grubitz. Despite initially coming across as a close friend and colleague of Wiesler, it soon becomes apparent that Grubitz views Wiesler as little more than a tool for his own political advancement.
Book Ends: Dreyman's play that features near the beginning and the end.
Brick Joke: Early on in the film, a young Stasi officer makes a politically dangerous joke in front of his superiors. After Wiesler is Reassigned to Antarctica in the letter-opening room, the same character informs him the wall has come down.
Character Development: The movie's first scenes show Wiesler to be a brutal, emotionless interrogator. During his surveillance assignment, Wiesler is shown slowly begining to care about Dreyman and Christa-Maria and eventually attempts to protect them from the Stasi. This is in many ways the core story of the film and Wiesler is its unlikely hero.
Chekhov's Gun: The red ink on the secret typewriter rubs off on Dreyman's fingers early in the film when he's hiding it. Towards the end, when he looks at his own records, a red smudged fingerprint on the last transcription page tells him that it was the file's author who had hidden the typewriter, just before the secret police searched Dreyman's apartment.
Code Name: All Stasi agents had one. Wiesler is known as HGW XX/7 (Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler and his division). Dreyman is also assigned a codename, "Lazlo", though he only finds out years later when looking up his Stasi files.
Creator Cameo: The voice in the earpiece saying "The Wall has fallen" belongs to Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, the writer and director.
Dedication: In-story example: Dreyman dedicates his latest novel "To HGW XX/7, with gratitude".
Also the subject of Dreyman's article. Despite keeping records of everything, from how many shoes he buys to how many books he reads, the Statistics Office has not published the suicide rates since 1977, when East Germany was second only to Hungary in European suicides.
Earn Your Happy Ending: Wiesler ends his career steaming envelopes open in a basement, Christa-Maria kills herself, and the DDR and Stasi continue to be a menace. But in the end, Wiesler saved a good man's life, got some gratitude for it eventually, and Communism eventually met the judgment of history four years and seven months later.
Fan Disservice: Both Christa-Maria's sex scene with the minister, and the scene in which Wiesler hires a prostitute and tries in vain to make an emotional connection to her as well as a sexual one.
Faux Affably Evil: Grubitz initially comes across as a likeable albeit cynical Stasi officer who has a friendly relationship with Wiesler. However, it soon becomes apparent that he's a ruthless opportunist who thoroughly enjoys abusing his authority at others' expense and is willing to destroy anyone who stands in the way of his lust for more power.
Ignored Vital News Reports: Towards the end of the film, Grubitz tosses a newspaper into the backseat of his car. The headline announces that Mikhail Gorbachev has become the Premier of the USSR.
Karma Houdini: After coercing Christa into sex she was clearly repulsed by and vindictively ruining hers and other peoples' lives, not much happens to Minister Hempf. Sure, he loses power after the fall of the Berlin Wall but he doesn't seem too bad off. In the film commentary, the director points out that this is based in reality, as many of the East German bigwigs landed on their feet after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Kick the Dog: Grubitz's cruel trick on the underling he catches telling a joke about then Chairman Honecker.
Mood Whiplash: Wiesler listening intently in on Dreyman asking Christa not to leave is a truly touching scene, as it shows he's starting to care about them. Then Udo bursts in to take over the shift and: "Let me guess what they're doing..." [makes humping gestures]
Never Trust a Trailer: The theatrical trailer played up the suspense of living under surveillance and pressure in a socialist state. The "Stasi agent comes to care about his targets and goes to extreme lengths to protect them" angle wasn't that clear.
No Good Deed Goes Unpunished: Wiesler goes against the state to protect Georg and Christa and ends up demoted to opening letters in a cellar. Also, Wiesler choosing not to report the gold Mercedes smuggling attempt turns out to backfire on the people he was trying to help.
Pet the Dog: Wiesler gets in an elevator, and a plastic ball bounces in, followed by the little boy who owns the ball. The boy asks if Wiesler is really a Stasi member, saying, "They're bad men who put men in jail, says my dad." To which Wiesler responds, "What's the name of your... ball?"
Reality Subtext: Many people involved in the filmmaking had a history with East Germany, having lived there, having had relatives living there and having been, naturally, spied on by Stasi agents. Notably the film's star, Ulrich Mühe, was under surveillance and later found out that his (then) wife was a registered informant on him.
Von Donnersmarck wrote the role specifically for Mühe - it ended up being his command performance as he died not long after the film was released.
Reassigned to Antarctica: Wiesler is demoted to Department M (steaming open letters in a dark basement) for obstructing the Dreyman operation. The reason he's reassigned rather than fired, imprisoned, or executed is that Grubitz couldn't prove anything—and even if he could, it would implicate Grubitz himself.
Screw This, I'm Outta Here!: Wiesler and (eventually) everyone else in the office's reaction to the news that the Berlin Wall had opened. With the Wall fallen, it would have only been a matter of time before they were told to leave their posts.