The Stasi was much, much worse than the Gestapo, if you consider only the oppression of its own people.

—Simon Wiesenthal

The “others” in the title of the new German film The Lives of Others are the artists, political dissidents and other undesirables who were persecuted by the East German Ministry for State Security (a.k.a. the Stasi) at the height of the Cold War. Back then, it has been estimated, the Stasi employed upward of 100,000 full-time officers and somewhere between 250,000 and 500,000 civilian informants in order to police a nation of 17 million. (The KGB, by comparison, found a similar number of agents sufficient for a nation of 280 million.) Children were enlisted to snoop on parents. Spouses ratted out each other. The failure to denounce subversives was itself a crime punishable by forced labor. Yet The Lives of Others, which was written and directed by the 33-year-old Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, looks back on those days not with anger or resentment, but rather with dewy-eyed nostalgia. It gives us a Stasi agent who is redeemed by the healing power of art — a secret policeman who has the soul of a poet. It could have been called Remember Those Stasi? They Weren’t So Bad After All.

Set in 1984, that year of Orwellian portent, the movie begins with a Stasi captain named Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe) lecturing a classroom of young officers-in-training about the finer points of interrogation. “The enemies of our state are arrogant — remember that,” he instructs, and when one student unwisely suggests that the Stasi’s interrogation methods may be inhumane, Wiesler puts a little “x” next to the pupil’s name on the class roster. In most schools, speaking out of turn might get you sent to the detention hall; here, it can land you in a gulag. That night, Wiesler accompanies his commanding officer, Colonel Grubitz (Ulrich Tukur), to the premiere of a new play by Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch), the only nonsubversive East German writer, we’re told, whose work is also read in the West. Dreyman thinks East Germany is the greatest country in the world, says Grubitz. Maybe he’s not as loyal as he seems, suggests Wiesler.

A case is opened, and we soon see Wiesler wiretapping every inch of Dreyman’s apartment and converting a conveniently empty attic into a listening post. But The Lives of Others doesn’t really care whether or not Dreyman is a subversive — Donnersmarck lays those cards on the table fairly early. Instead, it focuses on how Wiesler, eavesdropping from his godlike perch, learns that Dreyman’s onstage leading lady and offscreen lover, the beautiful Christa-Maria (Martina Gedeck), moonlights as the mistress of the party cultural minister Hempf (the towering Thomas Thieme), who happens to be responsible for authorizing the investigation of Dreyman. That discovery in turn launches Wiesler into a crisis of conscience: After a long career spent rooting out the enemies of socialism, he does an about-face when he realizes that the case at hand is less about state security than about a jealous suitor ridding himself of the competition. Or maybe it’s that book of Brecht poetry that tips the scales — the one Wiesler surreptitiously pilfers from Dreyman’s apartment, his beady eyes and impassive demeanor softening as he lies in his attic room reading the lyrics to “Remembering Marie A” from Baal. Or could it be the plaintive piano composition Wiesler overhears Dreyman playing, the one ever-so-subtly titled Sonata for a Good Man? It hardly matters, for Donnersmarck’s point is that Wiesler’s very proximity to all this art and art making is what transforms him. How, The Lives of Others asks, could anyone read Brecht, or hear the emotive strains of Oscar-winning film composer Gabriel Yared, and not understand the value of individual liberty over nationalistic conformity? And judging by the film’s success in Germany and its enthusiastic reception at this year’s Telluride and Toronto film festivals, it’s a good bet that many moviegoers will feel similarly moved. Personally, it gave me the creeps.

Donnersmarck is the sort of director who knows a good deal more about filmmaking technique and dramatic structure than about human behavior, and his impeccably well-made debut feature is the sort of movie that often gets wildly overpraised by audiences (including film-school grads, studio executives and some critics) who believe a good movie is one where the heroes and villains are clearly demarcated, every plant has a payoff, and the moral of the story is as obvious as skywriting. A few early reviews have even exalted The Lives of Others as an embodiment of the “old-fashioned” Hollywood moviemaking that Hollywood itself rarely produces anymore, though the only old Hollywood movies I was reminded of while watching it were those that share in Donnersmarck’s dogged literalism: In The Lives of Others, when one character tells another that he’s bound to end up steaming open letters in a dank basement mailroom, you can bet that the next thing you’ll see is a shot of that character steaming open letters in a dank basement mailroom.

As conceived by Donnersmarck and played by Mühe (who some viewers will recognize as the father from Michael Haneke’s Funny Games and Benny’s Video), Wiesler is an immaculate, if ridiculous, creation — a near parody of Germanic precision, with a stopwatch forever clenched in his fist and a posture that suggests a metal rod where his spine ought to be. Even Wiesler’s apartment looks like a photo spread from Good Socialism magazine, its spartan furnishings the logical extension of a man who has rejected life’s unnecessary luxuries (love, family, leisure time) in his effort to serve the state. And just as we’re beginning to wonder if the captain has a pulse, Donnersmarck throws in a scene of Wiesler burying his face in the sagging tits of a blowzy hooker, who, rather abruptly, departs for another appointment. “Next time, book me for longer,” she tells an indignant Wiesler. The Stasi, it would seem, kept even their orgasms running on a tight schedule.

In his broad outlines, Wiesler calls to mind Clerici, the similarly repressed fascist functionary at the center of Alberto Moravia’s novel The Conformist and Bernardo Bertolucci’s famous film adaptation. Only, where Clerici systematically (and all too believably) betrayed those closest to him, Wiesler sticks his neck out for people he barely knows. He’s a hero instead of an antihero, which is, I suppose, part of what gives The Lives of Others its popular appeal. That, and Donnersmarck’s unwavering belief in the essential goodness of mankind, despite so much evidence to the contrary. The Lives of Others wants us to see that the Stasi — at least some of them — were, like their Gestapo brethren, “just following orders.” You can call that naive optimism on Donnersmarck’s part, or historical revisionism of the sort duly lambasted by the current film version of Alan Bennett’s The History Boys. I, for one, tremble at the thought of what this young director does for an encore. Coming soon to a theater near you: Adolf Hitler: I Am Not an Animal!

THE LIVES OF OTHERS | Written and directed by FLORIAN HENCKEL VON DONNERSMARCK | Produced by QUIRIN BERG and MAX WIEDEMANN | Released by Sony Pictures Classics | AMC Century City

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