The Lives of Others came out in 2007 (in the UK) and it conjured up a storm. Winning the Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars and the BAFTAs as well as winning many other awards in Europe. I was in college when the film was released but that point I never really saw foreign films at the cinema, only at home. It was around this time I got my first job so I had money, finally, to spend on DVDs. The Lives of Others was one of the first DVDs ever bought. I started to watch this film in 2007 but for some reason, I stopped. The film, like many others, remained on my shelf for years until after University when I culled my collection. I ended up giving the film away to my aunt and uncle who likes it. I included the film in my list as I thought it was a modern classic, especially as Ulrich Mühe, who starred in the film, died soon after the film's release. He was a notable actor in Germany and this, I would have thought would have been his breakthrough. After 7 years I watched the rest of the film, remembering where I left off.
Set in 1984, East Germany, the Stasi are spying on thousands of citizens and forcing thousands to spy for them. Gerd Wiesler, a well known and well established Stasi officer agrees to monitor a notable playwright, Georg Dreyman, after his superiors, one eager for a promotion, the other wanting to break Dreyman up with his well known actress girlfriend, Christa-Maria. It transpires that the Minister of Culture has black mailed Christa into performing sexual favours to avoid being black listed, unknown to Dreyman. With Wiesler listening and wtaching, he asists in Dreyman discovering whats been happening. After the suicide of of one of his best friends who was black listed some years ago, the once loyal Dreyman writes an article to be published in West Gemany about how the government doesn't care about the high rate of suicides. Weiesler, who has now started to sympathise with Dreyman doesn't report this activity. But when Christa is arrested for buying medicine, she is forced into revealing that Dreyman is the author of the article, but again Wiesler steps in and removes the unregistered typewriter used to write the article from Dreyman's flat, thus clearing him of any charges. But in a tragic twist, Christa wracked with guilt runs into the road is hits by a lorry, killing her. Wiesler, now in disgrace is moved to an undignified department within the Stasi.
Years later the wall comes down, he walks out of the Stasi knowing that the organisation will also fall. A few more years later Dreyman finds out that he was under surveillance and requests the records. The transcripts do not reflect the real events and he realises that an officer had helped him. Dreyman finds Wiesler, now a postman, but chooses not to approach him, instead he dedicates his latest book to HGW XX/7, Wiesler's code number, thanking him.
There is far more to the film than I can summerise but these are the bare bones of the story. One thing that struck me was the moment the Berlin wall comes down in 1989. All that is celebrated is a fellow Stasi agent in the same place as Wiesler hears in the radio about the wall and then they all walk out after Wiesler. Nothing more is said. These large events in history do not matter to a character like Wiesler. He understands what is happening and what will happen and decides methodically what is to be done.
The emotional balance in the film is off kilter but it is on purpose and the characters are elevated because of this. Wiesler barely shows any emotion throughout. His small expressions are like delicate little ticks that lets the audience know what this character is feeling. He feels compassion when Christa dies and hope when he buys a copy of the book deicated to him from Dreymen. His anger and disgust is more obvious but he knows better than to lash out at any moment. At first he comes across as ruthless when teaching a class of recruits on how to tourture someone but gradually you can see his world slowly shattering as he wakes up to the type of organisation he has joined.
It's been a long time coming and I can't decide whether the wait hindered my opinion or enhanced the experience of the film. I'm annoyed as I can't remember why I stopped and why I gave the film away. I bought it specifically because it had won awards and had been recommended. In some ways, I'm glad it took me 7 years to finish the film as I now have knowledge I didn't have back the. I now recognise the cast of the film and have seen other films they've been in. The subject matter is also more familiar to me and I can appreciate German cinema after studying film studies for 2 years and film and TV for a further 3. My own knowledge has also improved. But had I seen it 7 years ago I feel I would have been more affected by the characters and the story. I am stunted in some ways that i cannot always just enjoy and appreciate a film for what it is, a story with interesting characters.
My expectations were high for this film and it did deliver. The story itself is just one of many about those who suffered at the hands of the Stasi, I felt like I was watching a ghost film. The shadows of an excellent film were there but I felt too much like an outsider. I'm not sure if I can explain this well enought to get across my weird standing on my viewing experience. I hope it is clear that the film was what it promised to be, a story about dissolution, desperation and how kindness can be unexpected.