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Film / The Lives of Others

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"Comrades, we must know everything."
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 drama film from 2006. It is the debut film of screenwriter and director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck.

The film takes place in 1984 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 (Ulrich Tukur) to carry out a spying operation against playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch), 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 (Martina Gedeck).

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 their actions, help their victims or rebel in any form against the system as Wiesler does), the film gives a very heartfelt portrayal of life in socialist East Germany.

Trope examples:

  • Anti-Villain: Wiesler is a loyal Stasi agent who gets up to some bad stuff at the beginning of the movie, but the key word there is "loyal"; he genuinely believes The Stasi are good for East Germany and protect the common folk from bad people. The realization that his higher-ups don't share his loyalty to their mission begins his rise to heroism.
  • Arc Words: "Good man."
  • Artistic License – History: Wiesler's actions would have been close to impossible for most real Stasi agents, because the Stasi knew that the watchmen have to be watched even more closely than the civilian populace - Stasi agents worked in mutually-surveilling teams when on duty, and were watched off-duty as well. However, the film is presented more as a morality play, interested in questions about human nature and not so much in history.
  • Ascetic Aesthetic: The Stasi headquarters and Wiesler's Lonely Bachelor Pad. Clean, modern, minimalist, efficient, soulless. Contrast with the Bohemian clutter of Dreyman's nineteenth-century flat: books, textiles, parquet, woodwork, warm lighting.
  • Auto Erotica: The minister rapes Christa-Maria in his car.
  • 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 advancement.
  • Big Brother Is Employing You: Weisler is an agent for the Stasi, the notorious East German secret police. He has a crisis of conscience.
  • Bilingual Bonus: Grubitz's joke about Erich Honecker makes more sense for those who are fluent in German. The joke in English goes "What is the difference between Erich Honecker and a telephone? None! Hang up, try again!" The punchline "Aufhängen, neu wählen!" has a double meaning in German: to hang up the phone and dial again, or to hang the man and have a new election. A better translation for feel would perhaps be: "Hang 'em up and try again."
  • Bittersweet Ending: Christa-Marie is dead and Wiesler ends his career steaming envelopes in his basement for doing the right thing, but communism faces the judgment of history four years later when the Berlin Wall comes down. In the end, it doesn't erase the trauma The Stasi caused, but Wiesler takes some consolation in having been able to do the right thing when it counted and protect a good man, and Dreyman writes a book to thank him for his efforts.
  • "Blackmail" Is Such an Ugly Word: Dreyman says that his director friend Albert Jerska is blacklisted. The minister tells him that he should be careful about using the word "blacklist".
  • Bookends: 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.
  • Broken Pedestal: Wiesler truly believes in surveillance of citizens to weed out malcontents, but he's shaken when the minister starts abusing their power just to get in a woman's pants.
  • Cacophony Cover Up: One of Dreyman's friends puts on a very loud music album when he visits his apartment, under the assumption that's he's been bugged, before writing a note and telling him to meet in a park later.
  • Central Theme: To Be Lawful or Good.
  • Character Development: The movie's first scenes show Wiesler to be a ruthless, emotionless interrogator. During his surveillance assignment, Wiesler is shown slowly beginning 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".
  • Defector from Commie Land: Invoked, as Dreyman and the other writers use this to test whether his apartment is bugged. Paul has an uncle in West Berlin who frequently visits. They loudly discuss a plan in detail to smuggle him out. Wiesler does not report this to the border checkpoint, and when the car receives no extra searches, they assume the apartment is not bugged. Wiesler is later surprised when he realizes that Paul is still there, as he believed it was a genuine escape attempt.
  • Defector from Decadence: While the Sonata of a Good Man sets up Wiesler's increasingly risky protection of Dreyman, the starting point of his rebellion is his disgust with his superior and Minister Hempf, who are using the power of the Stasi for their own personal gain, unlike the idealist Wiesler. Until that particular mission, Wiesler had no reason not to put faith into the GDR.
  • Died in Your Arms Tonight: Christa-Maria dies in Dreyman's.
  • Distant Finale: The story ends in early 1985 but gets a triple epilogue taking place during and after the fall of Communism.
  • Double Entendre: Non-sexual example. Wiesler is asked if the book he is buying is a gift. He replies, "No, it's for me."
  • Double Take: An ambulatory variation, when Wiesler walks past a bookstore window with copies of Sonata for a Good Man, walking back into frame to look at the display before going in to investigate.
  • Dramatic Irony:
    • Dreyman is oblivious to the fact that he's being watched 24/7, but the audience isn't.
    • Dreyman can't tie a tie, so he gets the single mom across the hall to tie it for him, saying "You can keep a secret, can't you?" What he doesn't know is that the neighbor saw the Stasi going into Dreyman's apartment, and Wiesler told her that her daughter would get kicked out of university if she said anything.
    • Christa-Maria's relationship with the minister.
    • Christa-Maria's confessions to the Stasi.
  • Dress-Coded for Your Convenience:
    • Wiesler's close-fitting, angular gray jacket matches his repressed personality and bleak life.
    • Dreyman's open shirt fronts suggest a sort of artsy virility.
    • Grubitz's combination of military uniform (he's a company man) with slightly unkempt hair and dodgy 'stache (he's really in it for himself) encapsulates his whole persona.
  • Driven to Suicide:
    • Jerska eventually commits suicide after being ultimately broken by the system and blacklisted for years.
    • Christa-Maria jumps under a truck, unable to face her beloved after betraying him.
    • 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 its numbers.
  • Ear Ache: Dreyman gets a bottle of champagne from the Spiegel editor and the cork happens to hit one of the hidden microphones, giving Wiesler a painful dose of feedback.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: Wiesler ends his Stasi 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.
  • Establishing Character Moment: The opening scene: Wiesler questions ruthlessly a suspect, and he uses this as an example for his students at the Stasi school (where he secretly marks the name of a student who questions his methods). This establishes Wiesler as a stone-hearted, emotionless and faithful Stasi agent.
  • "Eureka!" Moment: Near the end, Dreyman sees the red fingerprint on the final report. Watch his reaction - you can see him adding two and two and realizing that HGW was his "Guardian Angel" and saved his life right at that moment.
  • Evil is Petty: Hempf's entire reason for the Stasi surveillance operation is that he covets Dreyman's girlfriend. Grubitz sees it as a means of personal advancement, but Wiesler is disgusted that government resources are being used for such blatant corruption.
  • Fan Disservice: Both Christa-Maria's rape by the minister (he's fat and unattractive and she clearly feels disgust and humiliation), her subsequent Shower of Angst, 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.
  • Fast-Forward to Reunion: In 1985, Wiesler was in charge of spying on Dreyman, so he was close to him during a long period (even if Dreyman was not aware of it). In the end, the mission ends and Wiesler and Dreyman's destinies part. In the epilogue, Dreyman realizes that Wiesler spied on him. Subverted, because Dreyman identifies Wiesler, stalks him, but opts not to contact him. Instead, he pays tribute to him in a book.
  • Faux Affably Evil: Grubitz initially comes across as a likable 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.
  • Heel–Face Turn: Wiesler, the remorseless Stasi officer, has a change of heart and helps save a playwright from who knows how much trouble. However, he does it only because it goes against everything he believes about national security; it's being used for personal reasons and not the good of the nation.
    • However, when a little boy tells Wiesler that his father said the Stasi were bad men who put people in jail, Wiesler initially starts to ask the boy for his father's name, but cuts his question short halfway. This suggests that his zeal for rooting out enemies of the state has been at least somewhat shaken.
  • Humble Hero: One of the earliest signs the audience gets that Wiesler's not actually a bad guy is that he refuses to sit at the officers' table at the Stasi headquarters, opting to eat at one of the common tables instead.
    Wiesler: Socialism has to start somewhere.
  • I Never Said It Was Poison: Grubitz asks Wiesler if he knows about the suicide article, to which the latter winces upon remarking that it was published in Der Spiegel. He then tries to cover for this by saying that the writers were talking about it on the phone.
  • I Was Never Here: After the Stasi crew set up their equipment, Wiesler realizes that they've been seen by Dreyman's neighbor. He then goes to her and says that if she breathes a word of this to anyone, her daughter will lose her spot at the university.
  • 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 raping Christa-Maria 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 when Dreyman meets him by chance a couple of years later, he is doing pretty well for himself. 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-General Secretary Honecker.
    • Hempf telling Dreyman that he "couldn't satisfy" Christa-Maria - and this is after the Wall comes down, so there's literally no reason for it other than nastiness.
  • The Law of Conservation of Detail: When the main character hides his typewriter (he was writing anti-government pieces in East Germany), he notices that his fingertips were covered with the red ink he used. At the end of the movie, he finds the reports of the man who was spying on him, and notices two red fingertips next to his code name, showing him who saved his ass earlier in the movie by hiding his typewriter.
  • Living Lie Detector: Wiesler, as shown in the early interrogation scene that is also an Establishing Character Moment. He notes that innocent people will get angry when they're interrogated, and also that their stories tend to change as they reconstruct events. Guilty people get weepy and quiet, and they repeat their stories by rote because they're cover stories, not the truth. The man being interrogated eventually cracks under torture and confesses, though the audience is never shown if this confession is true or not.note 
  • Lonely Piano Piece: "Sonata For A Good Man". See Manly Tears below.
  • Look Both Ways: Christa-Maria's death.
  • Loose Floorboard Hiding Spot: Where Dreyman keeps his secret typewriter.
  • 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.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: A minor one by Wiesler. Dreyman and his friend set up a plan to determine if his apartment is bugged by setting up a false lead and seeing if the police act on it. Intending to protect Dreyman, Wiesler doesn't pass the phony tip along, so Dreyman erroneously believes that he's not under surveillance. In the end, however, it doesn't really end up mattering that much, since Wiesler himself is the one listening to the unguarded conversations and he continues to protect Dreyman's secrets.
    • Nice Job Fixing It, Villain: When Anton Grubitz reveals to Wiesler that in fact, the surveillance has no ideological reason but is a personal favour for Minister Hempf, Wiesler is so disgusted he first alerts Dreyman to his girlfriend's forced affair, and, with increasing awareness that this particular operation is wrong even by Stasi standards, he instead becomes Dreyman's de facto guardian angel.
  • 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.
  • Noble Demon: Wiesler is a Stasi agent and a ruthless interrogator, but unlike his superiors, he's not corrupted by his power and treats it as a job, done out of genuine conviction in the system in its pure, ideal form. His disgust over abusing personal power is part of what makes him ultimately side with Dreyman.
  • Not-So-Harmless Villain: In the first part of the film, Grubitz comes off generally as a buffoon-a sadist and a schemer, yes, but not particularly competent. However, when Wiesler comes to him suggesting that 24/7 surveillance of Dreyman be stopped, he immediately realizes he is hiding something, though he can't tell what it is.
  • 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?"
    • Dreyman opts not to introduce himself to a humbled Wiesler, who's now a postman, giving the latter his dignity. He dedicates his next book to Wiesler instead.
  • Product Placement: Der Spiegel (The Mirror), one of Germany's most prominent news magazines, is a major plot point. They even created the cover of the suicide issue used in the film, ensuring it met with their art standards.
  • Rape as Drama: Christa-Maria is coerced into submitting to the minister's advances, who forces himself on her in his car.
  • 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 or imprisoned 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. An ice-cold Stasi agent has a change of heart, redeems himself, and saves a Stasi target, at great personal cost.
  • Screw the Rules, I'm Doing What's Right!: At first Wiesler just covers for Georg and Christa-Maria because he feels bad for them, and because he is disgusted by the selfish motives of his superiors which have compelled him to spy on them. By the end, he gives up his entire career to save Georg's life.
  • 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.
  • Sexual Extortion: The minister rapes Christa-Maria. She knows that he has to power to end her acting career if she does not submit.
  • Sexual Karma: Wiesler and Christa-Maria have loving sex; it's in contrast when Wiesler attempts to recreate that intimacy with a hooker and it doesn't work.
  • Shower of Angst: Christa-Maria has one after her rape by the minister. She collapses to the bottom of the shower stall, weeping.
  • Shown Their Work:
    • All the spying equipment is authentic, brought in 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).
  • 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 all-seeing, all-knowing Stasi, watching everyone every day.
  • So Beautiful, It's a Curse: Beautiful actress Christa-Maria attracts unwanted attention and sexual advances from a powerful politician, leading eventually to her death.
  • Spoiler Cover: A minor variation, but the re-release poster (as seen above) features the red fingerprint and HGW XX/7, a Plot Point/The Reveal at the end of the film.
  • Staging the Eavesdrop: In order to know if Dreyman's apartment is bugged, he discusses loudly with his friends about a plan to smuggle him out in detail. The plan is inadvertently foiled by Wiesler, who, in an attempt to protect Dreyman, does not report this to the border checkpoint, and when the car receives no extra searches, they assume the apartment is not bugged.
  • The Stoic: Wiesler 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."
  • Take This Job and Shove It: Upon hearing the Berlin Wall has fallen, Wiesler simply gets up from his seat steaming envelops open and walks out.
  • Villain Has a Point: When in the opening Wiesler marks the student calling the interrogation inhuman, it's not just him being heartless - the kid is quite literally not cut for the job and thus making it known is part of the training and vetting process.
  • We Have Ways of Making You Talk: The movie opens with a lecture on this; one student says that their methods are "inhumane" (which certainly means the end of his career with the Stasi). Later Wiesler does this on Christa-Maria.
  • Well-Intentioned Extremist: Wiesler honestly believes he's doing a noble job, keeping his country secure from dissidents. He is actually fairly naive and doesn't believe anything's wrong with the "harsh but fair" system - until Hempf's actions leaves him disillusioned. Basically, the film is about a good man with an evil job.
  • 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.
  • What You Are in the Dark: Hell, this could be called What You Are In The Dark: The Motion Picture. Wiesler becomes disillusioned and upset with his mission more and more throughout the movie, and by the end of it he risks his life and intentionally destroys his own career just to save the life of a man he's never actually met in person.
  • You Are Number 6: During the opening sequence, Wiesler refers to the man he's interrogating as "Prisoner 2-2-7" or even just "2-2-7", with the purpose of thoroughly dehumanise the man and continues to do so when explaining the interrogation to the class. This not only works as an Establishing Character Moment for Wiesler as a stoic, detached operative, but was part of a genuine interrogation technique, allowing to twist a knife on suspects (watch the man's reaction once Wiesler brings up his children by their names).