To the imposingly named writer-director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, Ostalgie the East Germans’ wistfulness about the bad old days before the Wall fell was a sickness in need of treatment. His antidote: an urgent, exceptional first feature, The Lives of Others. It’s set in 1984, when the Stasi, East Germany’s internal spy network, kept watch on artists and political dissidents, forcing many into obeisance or jail, silence or suicide. Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe), a mousy Stasi captain, plants bugs in the home of chic playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch, who played the engineer in The Tunnel) and his actress girlfriend Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck). Wiesler enjoys spying and prying because he’s good at it. So when Dreyman decides to write a sub-rosa exposé of the communist state for a West German magazine, the spy is all ears.
Is this a political thriller? In part, yes. The Lives of Others has whispered conspiracies, a typewriter smuggled inside a cake box, a violent death, the sexual compromising of a beautiful woman. But those are mere trappings of a social structure that puts everyone at mortal risk, the spies no less than the spied-upon. Gradually, Wiesler is drawn into the couple’s story as is the viewer, for this is a gnarly tale of mixed motives, covert conspiracies and sexual deception on both sides. In a corrupt state, no one can be 100% pure.
The conflicts are not all fictional. Mühe had been a top East German stage actor under Stasi surveillance; he later learned his actress wife was listed as a state informant. The Lives of Others brought him a slew of awards, but he had little time to enjoy his renown. Mühe died of stomach cancer, at 54, in July 2006 just months before the film won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Picture.
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