REVIEW: 'The Lives of Others': Finding humanity in von Donnersmarck’s grey Eastern Berlin

Adham Youssef, Sunday 6 Nov 2016

The Lives of Others is screened within the Panorama of the European Film's newly launched section, the Urban Lens: Spotlight on Berlin. The film is one of several reflecting on the socially and historically fascinating city

The Lives of Others
(Still from The Lives of Others)

I first watched the Lives of Others in a Russian history class in 2014 at the American University in Cairo (AUC) with a professor who hated communism, the Soviet Union, and socialism as a whole. Allegedly, her grandfather, or an elder male relative, was killed in the Great Purge in the late 1930s.

Along with other anti-communist books and movies, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s 2006 film was on the list to show how communism ruled in East Germany.

The film follows the intellectual scene in East Germany and the relationship between artists and those in power. Political leaders often attempt to silence certain artists and give space and resources to more favoured ones.

The protagonist is dedicated Stasi officer Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe) who is assigned to spy on the life of one of the Communist Party’s “favoured artists”, to please a high-ranking member of the party's central committee.

The loyalty of the artist, famous playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch), is doubted and his private life is surveilled by state security. However, Koch is not a sell out; he believes in socialism but is critical of the young German Democratic Republic.

The Lives of Others
(Photo: still from The Lives of Others)

The Stasi officer is also a believer in socialism, and is dedicated to his work. Through a very eloquent script and plot, the differences between the two are highlighted.

Von Donnersmarck’s image of East Berlin is grey and timid, as well as depressing. Warmth and colour occurs only inside homes, between piles of books and glasses of red wine, in happy birthday parties, in eroticism between lovers, or in brainstorming sessions attending by a few intellectuals trying to write an article and sneak it out to be published in the West.

This greyness is translated into the uniform of the Stasi, in the bored faces of secret agents, and in monolithic Stalinist architecture. This greyness also saturates the life of the protagonist, who lives alone, eats canned food, and satisfies other urges with a busy sex worker.

As he pursues his work to document the lives of Dreyman and his actress girlfriend Christa-Maria (Martina Gedeck), Von Donnersmarck forces Wiesler to contemplate the human soul.

Wiesler is introduced to new feelings and previously unthought thoughts. He listens to the couple making love, hoping he can have a similar relationship. He is moved by Dreyman’s playing of Beethoven's Appassionata and cries. He steals a poetry book by Bertolt Brecht and reads it.

Ulrich Mühe’s acting is touching and very passionate, even though he speaks and interacts in a formal way. His clandestine interaction with Dreyman’s bohemian lifestyle opens this once cold hearted state policeman to compassion and the humane.

A minister in the central committee says “people never change.” But the plot evolves to prove otherwise. The film's cinematography captures this change beautifully.

The Lives of Others
(Photo: still from The Lives of Others)

The film fits well with "Urban Lens: Spotlight on Berlin" in the Panorama of the European Film festival.

Along with B-movie, Neukolln, and Run Lola Run, The Lives of Others will give viewers an interesting peek into how Berlin was, as well as what it became. The city is indeed an interesting landscape to examine. Trying to understand the social history of a population moving from Nazism to communism to capitalism is an intriguing experience, and cinema is one approach.

While the film humanises a Stasi protagonist, its highly anti-communist sentiment politicises Wiesler’s journey in exploring his own humane aspects. The film deprived people living in East Germany of any agency, presenting an oversimplified macro-narrative of oppressed East Germans finding resurrection only when interacting with citizens closely tied to Western values and lifestyles.

The triumph shown in the fall of the Berlin Wall was preceded by the West gaining momentum over the East, by winning Wiesler on their side, as if the borders between the two Germanys had signs stating "human" and "non-human."

Maybe that is why my professor chose it in her syllabus. I took that class in my final semester. I didn’t want to get into trouble with my professor, but surely she noticed my criticism of the readings she assigned, and how I used the words “comrade” to address Lenin and Trotsky and "great" to describe the October Revolution.

If I was to write a reflection paper at the time, I would have written: “A couple of years before the fall of the Berlin Wall, if the Communist Party in East Berlin, as von Donnersmarck sees it, asked a director to make film about West Berlin, a film very similar to The Lives of Others would be the result. A film leaning to propaganda showing a one-sided Berlin. No wonder it won the Oscars in 2007.”

The Lives of Others
(Photo: still from The Lives of Others)

The Lives of Others will be screened Wednesday, 9 November, at 1pm, at Cinema Karim, Downtown Cairo

Check the complete programme of Panorama for Cairo, Alexandria, Ismailia and Port Said here

Ahram Online is the media sponsor of The Panorama of the European Film and of Zawya

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