The Lives of Others

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A movie for every day of the year – a good one

7 October

Foundation of the German Democratic Republic, 1949

On this day in 1949, the German Democratic Republic (DDR in German) formally came into being. After losing the war, Germany had first had its eastern border shifted considerably to the west, to the Oder-Neisse line (reducing its landmass by about 25%). Germany had then been divided up between the four “victorious” powers, USA, USSR, GB and France (on the winning side if not technically victorious), with the easternmost portion of what was left handed over to the USSR (former German territory further east became part of Poland).

Known sarcastically in the Federal Republic of Germany (aka West Germany) as “the so-called German, so-called Democratic, so-called Republic”, the DDR was a satellite state of the Soviet Union, a key member of the Eastern Bloc. Mimicking, though at a slower pace, the post-war economic miracle wrought by its Western neighbour, East Germany became the most prosperous state in the Soviet sphere, though it still bore many of the hallmarks of the command economy – supermarkets with empty shelves and queues in the street for whatever was available that week. Between 1949 and 1989 it suffered constant emigration to the west by the younger, better educated and more aspirational, resulting in a fall of population from 19 to 16 million. It was the East Germans who finally brought down curtain on the Soviet era, by taking down the Berlin wall, which had separated off the Soviet part of Berlin – the historic capital of Germany, though entirely surrounded by East Germany, had remained divided between the four victorious powers right to the end.

The Lives of Others (2006, dir: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck)

The film that brought to an end a spate of “Ostalgia” movies, which look back with a certain degree of wistfulness on the Communist era (see Good Bye Lenin!), The Lives of Others takes a hard look at life in the most invigilated police state in the world, taking at its starting point the assignment handed to a Stasi spook (a sensationally good Ulrich Mühe in one of his last performances) to start eavesdropping on a playwright (Sebastian Koch) and his actress lover (Martina Gedeck).

What he finds is not what he expected – for sure the couple are intelligent, lead a cultured life and have a wide-ranging interest in the world, all of which makes them suspiciously au fait with what’s going on in the West. But they are also committed, sincere socialists. Compare this to the spook’s own life back in the grey building he operates from, where cynical jokes about party officials on the take and the deficiencies of the system are a fact of everyday life. And on top of that there’s the suspicion that as the earwig continues his surveillance operation he is beginning to envy the man his political certainty, or possibly he fancies the man’s woman.

Director Florian Von Donnersmarck’s command of his cast and his ability to conjure the look and mood of a system that no longer exists is astonishing. Doubly so when you consider that this is his feature debut. In another’s hands this could so easily have been a watchable but slabby political tract. But, using spy thrillers such as The Spy Who Came In from the Cold as an inspiration, Von Donnersmarck has created something grim with real bounce. Echoing this juxtaposition, look out for the deliberate grandstanding speeches straight out of the DDR book of socialist realist dramaturgy – a dry satirical joke which the film flips the other way for that deliberately too-convenient Hollywood ending.

Why Watch?

  • In real life Ulrich Mühe was kept under surveillance by the Stasi, and his wife was a Stasi informant
  • The film won the Oscar for best foreign language movie
  • A reminder of the days when surveillance and the curtailment of civil liberty was something the other side did
  • Catches the flavour of a country where 2% of the population were on the Stasi’s payroll

The Lives of Others – at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2013

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