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February 28, 2007 |

By Phillip Stephens | Film | February 28, 2007 |

There are many who felt that the death knell of communism rang out long before the crumble of the Eastern Bloc, the Soviet dissolution, or the dilapidation of the Berlin Wall. Indeed, before communism was made politically manifest, it was hailed as a farce by those who thought it a disingenuous treatment of human nature — how can civilization itself be classless; how can men voluntarily live as equals when each man has such a distinct need and desire to be free? Furthermore, how can human beings distinguish between good and evil if all action is made uniform?

But this is a view fueled in the West by a pro-capitalist upbringing and hindsight bias. It’s difficult for any of us to view the Soviet Era as anything other than an exercise in brutal absurdity, where Eastern European states cruelly bent millions of people to fit an (arguably) impossible egalitarian mold through fierce propaganda and social manipulation. It reads like the ultimate irony: compulsive equality — that by denying the freedom of the individual one may create a society free of oppression.

For Germans, this allegory was all too literal: Their country was divided, their capital city demarcated by a giant slab of concrete, signaling not only political affiliation, but an impossible ideological divide. It’s to the oft-overlooked (and decidedly unmourned) German Democratic Republic that director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck turns his gaze in The Lives of Others, a film that offers a stark but beautiful commentary on ethics in the face of impossible circumstances.

Set in East Berlin, 1984, Donnersmarck’s film finds the essential dilemma of morality not in broad, Orwellian parables, but in the lives of two men: Captain Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe), an agent of the Stasi (secret police), and his target, a playwright, Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch). Wiesler is a socialist idealist, a zealous servant of the Party as both a spy and expert interrogator. After a night at the theater, wherein Wiesler observes Dreyman and his mistress, Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck), and, perhaps because he recognizes in Dreyman his own nascent humanity, Wiesler declares the playwright suspicious and to be monitored at all times by the State.

Initially, Wiesler comes across as a caricature: Bald, stiff, unsmiling, and always clad in gray, he’s the rare Stalinist who practices what he preaches; he’s robotic in his methodology, even for a German. But despite our moral reservations, it’s hard not to admire Wiesler — his skill belies his earnestness; by spying on Dreyman he is serving the Greater Good of Socialism.

Dreyman is in every way Wiesler’s opposite: Tall, handsome, artistic and passionate, Dreyman has had the improbable fortune of political favor and artistic respect; he’s only too happy to play the pragmatist by neither toeing the party line nor risking his career and livelihood through honest artistic expression. But after the suicide of a blacklisted friend, Dreyman finds he is no longer able to live with the incongruity of his artistry and the cruel police state he lives in. Against his better judgment, he takes steps toward becoming a dissident.

Like Harry Caul in The Conversation, Wiesler uses his proficiency as an observer to mask his profound, personal sadness. The closer he draws to Dreyman, the more irrevocably involved he becomes. His disillusionment is inevitable: He soon learns that a powerful official has been hoping to dig up dirt on Dreyman in order to eliminate him as a romantic rival for Christa. The collapse of Wiesler’s idealism mirrors Dreyman’s discovery of his own — both men finally recognize their abusive government for what it really is: Dreyman fights back by publishing the truth, Wiesler fights back by protecting him. Both men commit political suicide by doing the right thing and betraying their country.

Donnersmarck, though only 33 and a first-time director, displays the maturity and patience of a master: He weaves The Lives of Others with both art and profundity, offering neither in sentimental doses; his film has the speed and eye of a thriller but the heart of a morality play. Though both Dreyman and Wiesler are tragically flawed, each finds the path to salvation by becoming a good man within a system that seems to preclude it. But Donnersmarck refuses to view their victories as wholly optimistic. Eventually, the Communist Bloc fails and the wall crumbles, but hardly due to the efforts of two men, as courageous as they were. With the same lens that offers hope, Donnersmarck asks if it really mattered in the long run.

Politics aside, Donnersmarck has wrought a superb, sophisticated look at a cynical world that denies justice, but where an individual may find freedom by making ethical decisions. He seems to echo Sartre, who once said “Man is condemned to Free Will.” Appropriately enough, Sartre was a communist.

Phillip Stephens is the lead critic for Pajiba. He lives in Fayetteville, AR.

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The Lives of Others / Phillip Stephens

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