The Lives of Others
|The Lives of Others|
Original German-language poster
|Directed by||Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck|
|Produced by||Max Wiedemann
|Written by||Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck|
|Music by||Gabriel Yared
|Edited by||Patricia Rommel|
|Distributed by||Buena Vista International (Germany)
Sony Pictures Classics (United States)
The Lives of Others (German: Das Leben der Anderen) is a 2006 German drama film, marking the feature film debut of filmmaker Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, about the monitoring of East Berlin by agents of the Stasi, the GDR's secret police. It stars Ulrich Mühe (who died within a year of the film's release) as Stasi Captain Gerd Wiesler, Ulrich Tukur as his superior Anton Grubitz, Sebastian Koch as the playwright Georg Dreyman, and Martina Gedeck as Dreyman's lover, a prominent actress named Christa-Maria Sieland.
The film was released in Germany on 23 March 2006. At the same time, the screenplay was published by Suhrkamp Verlag. The Lives of Others won the 2006 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. The film had earlier won seven Deutscher Filmpreis awards—including those for best film, best director, best screenplay, best actor, and best supporting actor—after setting a new record with 11 nominations. It was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 64th Golden Globe Awards. The Lives of Others cost US$2 million and grossed more than US$77 million worldwide as of November 2007[update].
Released 17 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall marking the end of the East German socialist state, it was the first noticeable drama film about the subject after a series of comedies such as Goodbye, Lenin! and Sonnenallee. This approach was widely applauded in Germany even as some criticized the humanization of Wiesler's character. Many former East Germans were stunned by the factual accuracy of the film's set and atmosphere, accurately portraying a state which had merged with West Germany and subsequently vanished 16 years prior to the release. The film's authenticity was considered notable, given that the director grew up outside of East Germany and was only sixteen when the Berlin Wall fell.
In 1984 East Germany, Stasi officer Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler is assigned to spy on playwright Georg Dreyman. Wiesler and his team bug the apartment, set up surveillance equipment in an attic and begin reporting Dreyman's activities. Dreyman had escaped state scrutiny due to his pro-Communist views and international recognition. Wiesler soon learns the real reason behind the surveillance: Minister of Culture Bruno Hempf covets Dreyman's girlfriend, actress Christa-Maria Sieland, and is trying to eliminate his rival. While Wiesler's boss, Grubitz, sees an opportunity for advancement, Wiesler, an idealist, is horrified. Through his surveillance, Wiesler knows Dreyman and Sieland are in love. Minister Hempf uses Sieland's vulnerability as an insecure actress whose livelihood is dependent on state approval of stagecraft to coerce her into having sex with him. After discovering Sieland's relationship with Hempf, Dreyman implores her not to meet him again. Sieland flees to a nearby bar where Wiesler, posing as a fan, urges her to be true to herself. She returns home and reconciles with Dreyman, rejecting Hempf.
Though a loyal communist and supporter of the regime, Dreyman becomes disillusioned with the treatment of his colleagues by the state. At his birthday party, his friend Albert Jerska (a blacklisted theatrical director) gives him sheet music for Sonate vom Guten Menschen (Sonata for a Good Man). Shortly afterwards, Jerska hangs himself. Dreyman decides to publish an anonymous article on the East German suicide rate in Der Spiegel. He (erroneously) accuses the state of coldheartedly ignoring those who commit suicide. Since all East German typewriters are registered, Dreyman uses a smuggled miniature typewriter with a red ribbon which he hides in the floor of his apartment. Before talking openly in his apartment, Dreyman and his friends test whether the flat is bugged by feigning an attempt to smuggle one of their blacklisted friends through the Berlin Wall. Wiesler, having become sympathetic to Dreyman, does not alert the border guards, and the conspirators believe they are safe.
Dreyman's article is published, enraging the authorities. From an agent at Der Spiegel, the Stasi obtains a copy of the suicide article in red ink that cannot be linked to a registered GDR typewriter. Hempf, livid at being jilted by Sieland, orders Grubitz to destroy her career using her abuse of prescription medication as grounds for arrest. Sieland is blackmailed into revealing Dreyman's authorship of the article. When the Stasi search his apartment, however, they do not find the typewriter. Grubitz then orders Wiesler to interrogate Sieland again, warning that failure will cost them both. Wiesler, resuming his role as Stasi interrogator, forces Sieland to tell him where the typewriter is hidden.
Grubitz and the Stasi return to Dreyman's apartment, and Sieland panics and flees the apartment, unaware that the typewriter is gone; Wiesler having already seized the evidence. When Dreyman realizes that she informed on him, a guilt-stricken Sieland runs into the street and throws herself in front of an oncoming truck. Grubitz offers a perfunctory claim of sympathy and informs Dreyman that the investigation is over. Upon reaching the Stasi headquarters, he tells Wiesler that his career is over, and that he will be demoted to Department M, a dead-end position for disgraced agents. As he leaves, Grubitz discards a newspaper announcing Mikhail Gorbachev as the new leader of the Soviet Union.
In November 1989, Wiesler is steaming open letters in a cramped, windowless office when a co-worker tells him about the fall of the Berlin Wall. Realizing what this means, Wiesler and his co-workers silently get up and leave their office. Two years later, Hempf and Dreyman have a chance encounter. Dreyman asks Hempf why he was never monitored, and Hempf tells him he was, in fact, under full surveillance. After uncovering surveillance equipment in his apartment, Dreyman goes to the Stasi Records Agency to read the files on his activities. He reads that Sieland was released just before the second search, and could not have removed the typewriter. After re-reading the files, he discovers that a lot of false information has been written about his activities, and finds a fingerprint in red ink on the final typewritten report. He realizes that the writer, Stasi agent HGW XX/7, had knowingly concealed his illicit practices, such as the authorship of the suicide article, and had been the one who had removed the typewriter before the search team arrived. Dreyman searches for Wiesler and finds him, delivering mail, but at the last moment he decides not to approach him.
On his rounds two years later, Wiesler passes a bookstore window display promoting Dreyman's new novel, Sonate vom Guten Menschen. He goes inside, opens a copy of the book and discovers it is dedicated "To HGW XX/7, with gratitude". Wiesler buys the book. When the sales clerk asks if he wants it gift-wrapped he responds, "No, it's for me."
Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's parents were both from East Germany (originally they were from further east; the von Donnersmarcks belonged to Silesian nobility but the region was transferred to Poland from Germany after World War II). He has said that, on visits there as a child before the Berlin Wall fell, he could sense the fear they had as subjects of the state.
He said the idea for the film came to him when he was trying to come up with a scenario for a film class. He was listening to music and recalled Maxim Gorky's saying that Lenin's favorite piece of music was Beethoven's Appassionata. Gorky recounted a discussion with Lenin:
And screwing up his eyes and chuckling, [Lenin] added without mirth:
But I can't listen to music often, it affects my nerves, it makes me want to say sweet nothings and pat the heads of people who, living in a filthy hell, can create such beauty. But today we mustn't pat anyone on the head or we'll get our hand bitten off; we've got to hit them on the heads, hit them without mercy, though in the ideal we are against doing any violence to people. Hm-hm—it's a hellishly difficult office!
Donnersmarck told a New York Times reporter: "I suddenly had this image in my mind of a person sitting in a depressing room with earphones on his head and listening in to what he supposes is the enemy of the state and the enemy of his ideas, and what he is really hearing is beautiful music that touches him. I sat down and in a couple of hours had written the treatment." The screenplay was written during an extended visit to his uncle's monastery, Heiligenkreuz Abbey.
Although the opening scene is set in Hohenschönhausen prison (which is now the site of a memorial dedicated to the victims of Stasi oppression), the film could not be shot there because Hubertus Knabe, the director of the memorial, refused to give Donnersmarck permission. Knabe objected to "making the Stasi man into a hero" and tried to persuade Donnersmarck to change the film. Donnersmarck cited Schindler's List as an example of such a plot development being possible. Knabe's answer: "But that is exactly the difference. There was a Schindler. There was no Wiesler."
The film was received with widespread acclaim. Film aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes reports a 93% "Fresh" rating, based on 142 positive reviews out of 152. A review in Daily Variety by Derek Elley noted the "slightly stylized look" of the movie created by "playing up grays and dour greens, even when using actual locations like the Stasi's onetime HQ in Normannenstrasse." Time magazine's Richard Corliss named the film one of the Top 10 Movies of 2007, ranking it at #2. Corliss praised the film as a "poignant, unsettling thriller."
Film critic Roger Ebert gave the film four stars, describing it as "a powerful but quiet film, constructed of hidden thoughts and secret desires." A. O. Scott, reviewing the film in The New York Times, wrote that Lives is well-plotted, and added, "The suspense comes not only from the structure and pacing of the scenes, but also, more deeply, from the sense that even in an oppressive society, individuals are burdened with free will. You never know, from one moment to the next, what course any of the characters will choose." Los Angeles Times movie critic Kenneth Turan agreed that the dramatic tension of the film comes from being "meticulously plotted", and that "it places its key characters in high-stakes predicaments where what they are forced to wager is their talent, their very lives, even their souls." The movie "convincingly demonstrates that when done right, moral and political quandaries can be the most intensely dramatic dilemmas of all."
American commentator John Podhoretz called the film "one of the greatest movies ever made, and certainly the best film of this decade." William F. Buckley, Jr. wrote in his syndicated column that after the film was over, "I turned to my companion and said, 'I think that is the best movie I ever saw.'" John J. Miller of National Review Online named it #1 in his list of 'The Best Conservative Movies' of the last 25 years.
Several critics pointed to the film's subtle building up of details as one of its prime strengths. The film is built "on layers of emotional texture", wrote Stephanie Zacharek in Salon online magazine. Josh Rosenblatt, writing in the Austin Chronicle called the film "a triumph of muted grandeur." Lisa Schwarzbaum, writing in Entertainment Weekly, pointed out that some of the subtlety in the film is due to the fact that "one of the movie's tensest moments take place with the most minimal of action" but that the director still "conveys everything he wants us to know about choice, fear, doubt, cowardice, and heroism." An article in First Things makes a philosophical argument in defense of Wiesler's transformation. The East German dissident songwriter Wolf Biermann was guardedly enthusiastic about the film, writing in a March 2006 article in Die Welt: "The political tone is authentic, I was moved by the plot. But why? Perhaps I was just won over sentimentally, because of the seductive mass of details which look like they were lifted from my own past between the total ban of my work in 1965 and denaturalisation in 1976."
Slavoj Žižek, reviewing the film for In These Times, criticized the film's perceived softpedaling of the oppressiveness of the German Democratic Republic, as well as structure of the playwright's character, which he thought was not very likely under a hard communist regime. Anna Funder, the author of the book Stasiland, in a review for The Guardian called The Lives of Others a "superb film" despite not being true to reality. She claims that it was not possible for a Stasi operative to have hidden information from superiors because Stasi employees themselves were watched and almost always operated in teams.
Awards and honors
The film and its principals have won numerous awards. Among the most prestigious are:
The Lives of Others also appeared on many critics' lists of the ten best films of 2007.
The Europe List, the largest survey on European culture established that the top three films in European culture are
- Roberto Benigni's Life is Beautiful
- Donnersmarck's The Lives of Others
- Jean-Pierre Jeunet's Amelie
Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Netherlands and Sweden had the film at number 1.
2013 mass surveillance disclosures
The Lives of Others has been referenced in political protests following the 2013 mass surveillance disclosures. Daniel Ellsberg in an interview with Brad Friedman on KPFK/Pacifica Radio republished on salon.com stressed the importance of The Lives of Others in light of Edward Snowden's revelations:
|“||ELLSBERG: My knowledge of the Stasi is not very extensive, but it's largely from a movie called The Lives of Others, which won the Oscar for "Best Foreign Film" some years ago. Everybody should get that now. It should be reissued now. Preferably. It has subtitles. In German. But I'd like to see it dubbed so it had a wider audience. What that shows is what life can be with a government that knew as much as the Stasi did then. But if they know --- and one thing they can do with that information right now --- is to turn people into informants, so that the government has not only the information that people say on electronic devices, they have what they say in the bedroom, because their wife or their whoever --- spouse --- is an informant. As happened in the movie. That is what did happen in East Germany. And if we were to get that here, and there's the infrastructure for it right now, we will become a democratic republic in the same sense as the East German Democratic Republic.||”|
Film critic and historian Carrie Rickey believes that The Lives of Others was one of two movies that influenced Snowden's actions, the other being the 1974 Francis Ford Coppola film The Conversation, both being about wiretappers troubled by guilt.
|“||Both movies are about the morality of surveillance and the questionable reliability of information harvested – and how listeners can be duped and/or can misinterpret raw data. I would recommend these films to anyone interested in great movies that touch on the issues raised by L’Affaire Snowden.||”|
On 25 June 2013, after revelations of collaboration between NSA and GCHQ, British journalist and documentary maker Sarfraz Manzoor tweeted that "Now would be a good time to pitch a British remake of The Lives of Others." On 16 July 2013, American novelist and frequent cable news commentator Brad Thor stated "At what point did the Obama administration acquire the rights to reenact The Lives of Others?" 
Donnersmarck and Ulrich Mühe were successfully sued for libel for an interview in which Mühe asserted that his second wife, Jenny Gröllmann, informed on him while they were East German citizens through the six years of their marriage. Mühe's former wife denied the claims, although 254 pages' worth of government records detailed her activities. However, Jenny Gröllmann's real-life controller later claimed he had made up many of the details in the file and that the actress had been unaware that she was speaking to a Stasi agent.
Literature and music
- Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck: Das Leben der anderen. Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main 2006, ISBN 3-518-45786-1
- Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck: Das Leben der anderen. Geschwärzte Ausgabe. Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main 2007, ISBN 3-518-45908-2
- A piano sonata ("Sonata for a Good Man") is used as the main transformation point of the Stasi Agent Gerd Wiesler. In the film, the score doesn't carry the name of the composer, as it is original music written for the film by Gabriel Yared.
- An excerpt of a 1920 poem by Bertold Brecht, "Reminiscence of Marie A.", is recited in the film in a scene in which Wiesler reads it on his couch, having taken it from Dreyman's desk.
- The poem "Versuch es" by Wolfgang Borchert is set to music in the film and played as Dreyman writes the article about suicide. Borchert was a playwright whose life was destroyed by his experience of being drafted into the Wehrmacht in World War II and fighting on the Eastern Front.
- "DAS LEBEN DER ANDEREN - THE LIVES OF OTHERS". British Board of Film Classification. 2006-11-27. Retrieved 2012-11-24.
- "The Lives of Others (2007)". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved 7 July 2011.
- Riding, Alan (7 January 2007). "Behind the Berlin Wall, Listening to Life". New York Times. Retrieved 2007-07-27.
- "The Lives of Others (2007)". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved 2007-10-25.
- Ash, Timothy (2007-05-31). "The Stasi on Our Minds". The New York Review of Books. Retrieved 2014-11-17.
It was therefore with particular interest that I recently sat down to watch The Lives of Others, this already celebrated film about the Stasi, made by a West German director who was just sixteen when the Berlin Wall came down.
- Grashoff, Udo. "‘The Death of Others': the myth and reality of suicide in the German Democratic Republic". Retrieved 2014-12-11.
- "Director's Statement". Sony. Retrieved 2007-08-17.
- Heiligenkreuz webpage. Retrieved 26 March 2009.
- Fundler, Anna (5 May 2007). "Tyranny of Terror". The Guardian (London).
- The Lives of Others at Rotten Tomatoes
- Elley, Derek (11 June 2006). "The Lives of Others". Daily Variety. Retrieved 2007-08-17.
- Corliss, Richard; "The 10 Best Movies"; Time magazine; 24 December 2007; Page 40.
- Corliss, Richard; "The 10 Best Movies"; time.com
- Ebert, Roger (21 September 2007). "The Lives of Others". Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved 14 July 2010.
- Scott, A.O. (9 February 2007). "A Fugue for Good German Men". The New York Times. Retrieved 2007-08-17.
- Turan, Kenneth (1 December 2006). "The Lives of Others". The Los Angeles Times. Archived from the original on 9 May 2007. Retrieved 2007-08-17.
- Podhoretz, John (25 July 2007). "Ulrich Muhe RIP". National Review Online. Retrieved 2007-08-17.
- Buckley, Jr., William F. (23 May 2007). "Great Lives". National Review Online. Retrieved 2007-08-17.
- Miller, John (23 February 2009). "The Best Conservative Movies". National Review Online. Retrieved 19 August 2009.
- Zacharek, Stephanie (9 February 2007). "The Lives of Others". Salon.com. Retrieved 2007-08-17.
- Rosenblatt, Josh (2 March 2007). "The Lives of Others". Austin Chronicle. Retrieved 2007-08-17.
- Schwarzbaum, Lisa (2 February 2007). "Movie Review: The Lives of Others (2007)". Entertainment Weekly. Retrieved 2007-08-17.
- ""Why Dictators Fear Artists" (2007)". First Things. 23 July 2007. Retrieved 2007-08-24.
- Wolf Biermann: The ghosts are leaving the shadows – signandsight
- Zizek, Slavoj (18 May 2007). "The Dreams of Others". In These Times. Retrieved 2007-08-17.
- "Metacritic: 2007 Film Critic Top Ten Lists". Metacritic. Archived from the original on 2 January 2008. Retrieved 2008-01-05.
- David Germain; Christy Lemire (27 December 2007). "'No Country for Old Men' earns nod from AP critics". Associated Press, via Columbia Daily Tribune. Archived from the original on 3 January 2008. Retrieved 2007-12-31.
- "The self-perception of Europeans in comparison with the perception of other countries". Goethe Institute.
- "European officials lash out at new NSA spying report". CBS News. June 30, 2013.
- Friedman, Brad (14 June 2013). "Daniel Ellsberg: Edward Snowden is a patriot".
- Hoffmann, Sheila Weller (15 July 2013). "What should Edward ‘I’m a brave martyr but I wanna go home’ Snowden do now?". The Washington Post.
- "quote-sarfaraz". Sarfraz Manzoor. Retrieved 18 August 2013.
- "Brad Thor- Lives of Others". Brad Thor. Retrieved 18 August 2013.
- Nickerson, Colin (29 May 2006). "German film prompts open debate on Stasi: A forbidden topic captivates nation". The Boston Globe.
- "Ulrich Mühe Obituary". The Telegraph. 27 July 2007. Retrieved 2012-11-30.
- John Hamilton (musician, scholar): Conspiracy, Security, and Human Care in Donnersmarck’s Leben der Anderen. Historical Social Research 2013 Vol. 38 (2013), No. 1, pp. 129–141.
- Article in the Boston Globe about the film's political impact in Germany
- Interview in indieWIRE with Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck about the film
- Directing 'The Lives of Others' (audio), a February 2007 Fresh Air interview
- Teaching material from digischool.nl
- Official website
- The Lives of Others at the Internet Movie Database
- The Lives of Others at AllMovie
- The Lives of Others at Box Office Mojo
- The Lives of Others at Rotten Tomatoes
- The Lives of Others at Metacritic