The Lives of Others (15)

Oct 17, 2007
Cranbrook Film Society

This is a tense, dramatic and beautifully acted film set in East Berlin during the time of the German Democratic Republic. It shows how the cultural scene was monitored closely by the German Secret police, the Stasi. Since the fall of the wall in 1989 and what the Germans call the Wende, the turning of the east to the west there has been a reluctance on the part of the German political and cultural establishment to fully address the distorting of lives and relationships that the GDR imposed on its people. In 2005 the organisers of the Berlin Film Festival refused to accept this film as an official entry, and although the film only cost US$2 million dollars to make, the director, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck initially found it difficult to raise the money.

The film was released in Germany on March 23rd 2006. At the same time the screenplay was published by Suhrkamp Verlags, Donnersmarck and the late Ulrich Mühe, who plays the Stasi officer who is the film’s central character, were successfully sued for libel for the book, in which Mühe asserted that his former wife informed on him while they were East German citizens through the six years of their marriage. In the film’s publicity material, Donnersmarck says Mühe’s former wife denied the claims, although 254 pages worth of government records detailed her activities. An ironic example of how the dead hand of the Stasi still lies on the East German people. As Anna Funder in her excellent book, ‘Stasiland’ has written, in forty years ‘the firm’ produced as many records on its people as a united Germany had done since the Middle Ages. Laid upright and end to end the files on their 11 million people would stretch 180 kilometres. This created a legacy of suspicion and doubt that still infects relationships today.

The film was a worldwide hit and has grossed many times its cost, and won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 2006. It is superbly plotted and is full of convincing detail, making it an effective thriller. However for me, there is still a question mark over the credibility of the central character, the Stasi officer. Although the opening scene of the film is set in Hohenschönhausen prison, the movie could not be filmed there because Dr Hubertus Knabe, the director of the memorial, refused to give von Donnersmarck permission. Knabe objected to “making the Stasi man into a hero” and tried to persuade von Donnersmarck to change the movie. Donnersmarck instead cited Schindler’s List as an example showing that such a plot development would be possible. Knabe’s answer: “But that is exactly the difference. There was a Schindler. There was no Wiesler.”

Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck | Germany | 2006 | 137 minutes | 15