Of all the communist states, East Germany had the most elaborate and insidious secret service. It is said (by wikipedia) that 1 in every 50 East German citizens was collaborating with the Stasi (the East German secret police). It was a world in which people had to be afraid of everyone -- even their friends, family and children. The most innocuous comment or joke could land you in trouble -- not necessarily prison, no in this world the hammer was more subtle. A black mark on your folder affected your ability to work in a non-menial job, to get a decent apartment, to get your children into school.
In 1985, I was studying in West Berlin and I spent my free weekends in East Berlin. If you were never in the eastern bloc during this period, it is perhaps hard to imagine what it was like. Grey oppression. That was the overwhelming feeling and look of the place. One night, I stayed past the curfew for foreigners and rode the subway through the night and into the next morning. I watched the other riders, who stared fixedly at the floor. They could tell that I was a foreigner. Then around 2am, the subway thinned out and it was just me and one other man. He looked like he was maybe a writer or a university professor. He came over and sat next to me. He clearly wanted to talk but was very nervous. Of all my many trips to East Germany, this was the only time someone had the nerve to say anything to me. He leaned close and asked where I was from. I told him I was an American studying in West Berlin. He asked to look at my passport. I handed it to him and watched as he fingered the stamps showing everywhere I had traveled. I knew he was forbidden to travel and I felt self-conscious. He looked to be in his 50s so he would have been in his early twenties when the Berlin Wall was built. Did he have friends or family from whom he was separated in West Berlin? Probably. He glanced again over his shoulder, leaned forward and whispered in my ear, "Don't believe what they tell you about East Germany. We are not free and this isn't a Socialist utopia." I had no idea what to say to this completely unexpected remark. The moment was like a scene out of some art movie -- the florescent lights of the subway flickering, the sound of the subway rushing through the underground, and a gray-coated German intellectual trying to educate a young naive American student. Thing was that my first visit to East Berlin had banished any question about the eastern bloc being a Socialist utopia from my young, liberal mind. This was a world where posters proclaimed things like “To do everything for the welfare of the people – that is the meaning of Socialism!”, next to these really depressing looking factories and next to shops that held nothing of value. It was a world where I was reminded forcibly of the cliche "A lie repeated a thousand times becomes the truth". I waited for him to say more. Was he serious? But just whispering this heresy seemed to have terrified him. He handed back my passport and got off the subway.
This world of fear is the one in which Lives of Others is set. Lives of Others begins, appropriately, in 1984. The premise is simple: surveillance of possible dissidents or defectors. Our protagonist, Captain Gerd Wiesler, is an expert on surveillance, interrogation, and reading the body language of others. From a series of scenes exemplifying his proficiency in each area, it becomes clear that with a life devoid of vibrancy, Wiesler lives vicariously through his subjects. We meet Wielser in a university classroom. Approached by an old classmate, Lt. Colonel, Wiesler is assigned to monitor the playwright Georg Dreyman. Once again, the next several steps are straight forward. The Stasi execute a sting operation in which Dreyman's apartment is given the complete works: microphones in the light switches and electrical sockets. Setting up a roost in the attic of the apartment complex, Wiesler and his assistant (Udo) monitor the activity below, typing by the light of a solitary, metal lamp. With lighting from the below and to the side, Wieslers face is cast into long shadows of what is, perhaps, obsession. In the interest of not giving too much away (as the plot is rather unremarkable), suffice it to say that as Wiesler roosts in the attic, the drama unfolds below. The differece between love and sex are at the heart of this drama. Dreyman is in love with the actress Christa-Maria, but a high ranking minister, Hempf, lusts after her as well. Using what can only be described as oozing charm and his political position, he forces her to engage in demeaning and compromising positions. Thus, Christa-Maria is suspended between her allegiance to Dreyman and herself and the malignant interests of the minister. All the while, Wiesler sits and listens as tensions come to a head, waffling in his sympathies for one party or the other, like a vapid viewer of some tv soap-opera. His sympathies take him so far as to physically reach out to Christa-Maria. The remainder of the film plays out this initial setup. The big question is, will Wiesler be caught--by his superiors or Dreyman. With love, sex, betrayal, and compassion what more could any lover of psychological spy thrillers want? Certainly, this was one of the most engrossing films that I watched in 2007 and is further validated having won the 2007 Oscar for Best Foreign Film.
Written jointly by EEH and Kaja
Rented on Netflix.