by Luke Baumgarten & r & & r & The Lives of Others & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & S & lt;/span & oviet East Germany kept track of its citizens with a domestic surveillance program whose harrowing slogan was "To Know Everything." That's certainly what intelligence officers seek to do in The Lives of Others, a film as much about love and art as obedience and subversion.
Georg Dreyman is a playwright. He probably isn't East Germany's most brilliant or visionary writer, but he toes the party line. The film opens in 1985. It's close enough to the fall of communism that the government's foundations are crumbling. The end is far enough away, though, that cracks in the fa & ccedil;ade haven't yet appeared. By this point, Dreyman is the only author the secret police (the Stasi) don't suspect of some extreme artistic subversion. He doesn't keep that distinction long.
We first see him on the night his new play opens, but we don't meet him. Instead, we view him from afar, through the eyes of two Stasi agents in attendance. Capt. Gerd Wiesler is about as high up as one can go without being a politician. Lt. Col. Anton Grubitz is about as low as you can get while still being one.
Though we hear from Dreyman later that night, we don't get to know him until a series of events driven by lust and ladder-climbing finds Wiesler bugging his flat and wiretapping his phone.
At this point, the audience is given complete access to Dreyman's life. While a series of deals are put in place guaranteeing Grubitz (and through him, Wiesler) a promotion if the playwright is caught in an act of sedition, our access leads to the sense that he really does love the party that's conspiring against him.
The Lives of Others is a stunning, quiet, sad chronicle of the ways authoritarian rule succumbs to its own paranoia and whim. When Dreyman eventually decides to begin actively rebelling against the will of the state, it's because of the Stasi, not in spite of them. Likewise, the intense, loyal, idealistic Wiesler eventually has those loyalties shaken by the cynical brutality of what he's asked to do. The system, argues writer/director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, creates enemies from its most faithful.
Sebastian Koch plays Dreyman. While he does well, he also gets by displaying big, artistic flourishes of emotion. It's Ulrich M & uuml;he as Wiesler who really owns his character and ultimately defines the film.
M & uuml;he wears Wiesler's fidelity like an expressionless mask. He is a spy and an interrogator. He is the embodiment of the fear by which the state rules. He has no passion. He has no uncertainty. He is ruthlessly effective. As the injustice of his task weighs on him, though, the mask begins to crack and his humanity shows through. M & uuml;he's eyes search for an ideological foothold. His mouth quavers.
One particularly gorgeous scene finds Wiesler eavesdropping on Dreyman. The author is mourning his friend's suicide by playing a piano sonata, the last gift the man gave him. Von Donnersmarck intercuts Dreyman playing and Wiesler listening. The scene ultimately settles on Wiesler as the sonata crescendos. We watch him sit stone-faced, trying to maintain his composure, only to let leak a single tear. In that moment he's playing a character, sure. He's also, though, symbolic of an entire nation ravaged and wearied by 40 years of suspicion, corruption and failed promise. (Rated R)