The Lives of Others
"Comrades, we must know everything
—Stasi boss Erich Mielke, Ministry head from November 1957 to November 1989
(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.
- The Atoner: Wiesler.
- Anti-Hero: Wiesler is working for the bad guys, but the story is about his journey into heroism.
- Big Brother Is Employing You
- Book Ends: Dreyman's play that features near the beginning and the end.
- Blackmail Is Such an Ugly Word: Dreyman should be careful about using it.
- 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.
- 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.
- Distant Finale: The story ends in early 1985 but gets a double epilogue taking place after the fall of Communism.
- Double Entendre: Non-sexual example, Wiesler asks if the book he is buying is a gift. He replies, "No, it's for me."
- Dramatic Irony:
- Dreyman is oblivious to the fact that he's being watched 24/7, but the audience isn't.
- Christa-Maria's relationship with the minister.
- Christa-Maria's confessions to the Stasi.
- Died in Your Arms Tonight: Christa-Maria dies in Dreyman's.
- Driven to Suicide: Jerska and Christa-Maria.
- 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.
- Heel Face Turn: Wiesler.
- Hey, It's That Guy!:
- 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.
- Lonely Piano Piece: "Sonata For A Good Man". See Manly Tears below.
- Look Both Ways: Christa-Maria's death.
- Manly Tears: Wiesler crying when he hears "Sonata for a Good Man", showing the start of his Heel Face Turn.
- 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]
- The Muse: Christa-Maria to Dreyman.
- 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.
- Rousseau Was Right: The whole point of the movie.
- 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.
- Secret Police: The Stasi for East Germany.
- Shown Their Work:
- All the spying equipment is authentic, brought from museums. Even the machine they use to steam envelopes open.
- The last scenes with Dreyman looking up his old surveillance files.
- Much of the rest falls under Acceptable Breaks from Reality, such as a Stasi member performing a Heel Face Turn and being able to lie (in reality, even the people doing surveillance were under surveillance).
- Shower of Angst: Christa-Maria has one after her car ride with the minister.
- Silence Is Golden: Some of the most powerful scenes are the ones with very little spoken dialogue and subtle nuances of emotion.
- Sinister Surveillance
- The Stoic: Wiesler. He never smiles once in the whole film. The closest he gets is at the very end when he buys Dreyman's book. "No, it's for me."
- We Have Ways of Making You Talk: The movie opens with a lecture on this; one student says that their methods are "inhumane" (which is quite possibly the most idiotic thing that a person could do, given the setting). Later Wiesler does this on Christa-Maria.
- Wham Line: When Dreyman states he didn't think he was being watched, Hempf practically laughs at the statement, telling him to go see for himself.