That term first came to my mind when, as a child, I’d try to say “stream of consciousness” and end up with “brainflow.” It seems to fit here.

Welcome to the ramblings of my mind. (For now, these ones revolve mostly around films.)

The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen)

Monday, August 27th, 2007 9:11 pm—Film

The Lives of Others (Germany 2006, Drama), Writer/Director: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck

The Lives of Others has been on my “must see” list for months, ever since, in the space of 24 hours, PM and then CM recommended it to me as one of the best films of the year. I’d see pretty much anything that comes with their stamp of approval.

Set in East Germany not long before the fall of the Berlin Wall, the film begins in 1984 when the Stasi—the secret police that enforced socialist rule in the German Democratic Republic—was in complete control. Their goal was “To know everything,” and they met that goal by any means necessary.

The film opens with Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe in a wonderfully nuanced performance), an established Stasi surveillance expert, teaching a class on proper interrogation methods. One of these methods, it appears, is to keep the suspect awake so long that he can no longer think straight.

In this opening sequence, in which the film cuts between Wiesler teaching and Wiesler interrogating, we learn something fundamental about the man. After hearing of Wiesler’s techniques, one of his students notes that it’s inhuman to keep a person awake for so long. It doesn’t occur to the keen pupil that Wiesler himself had to stay awake at least as long. He sets aside his own needs and desires to serve the state.

It later becomes clear that Wiesler doesn’t abide by the state out of fear, but because he truly believes in what it stands for. He has an unwavering commitment to his beliefs. And when his views change, he isn’t afraid to act on them even if they aren’t in synch with the views of the governing party.

On the order of the Minister of Culture (Thomas Thieme), Wiesler is soon assigned to monitor a famous playwright named Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) and his actress girlfriend Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck), in search of any disobedient behaviour. But it quickly becomes apparent that the Minister’s motives are not pure; he is infatuated with Christa and is looking for an excuse to put Georg behind bars.

Along with most of the rest of East Germany, Christa and Georg live in fear of the state. They don’t entirely agree with the socialist regime. But they have seen what happens to their friends in the arts community who speak their minds too freely.

As Wiesler monitors the couple, listening in from an attic above their apartment, he is privy to their most intimate moments. He gets to know them and, eventually, to care deeply for them. Disillusioned by the Minister’s selfish abuse of power and enlightened by Christa and Georg’s perspectives, Wiesler starts to change his opinion about the ruling state. And he decides to do something about it.

At its heart, and as its title would suggest, The Lives of Others is more about the need for contact with others than it is about socialism in East Germany. The film is enriched by its historical context but, ultimately, the story could be told without it. Wiesler is lonely. He hasn’t allowed himself many pleasures in life, and that includes friendship or intimacy with other people. The “relationship” he forms with Christa and Georg becomes the most precious thing in his life. And, as we see in the film’s beautiful and touching ending, the feeling is mutual.

I highly recommend The Lives of Others. It’s thoughtful, thought-provoking and moving, and features gorgeous performances from its lead actors. Mühe in particular, playing the quiet and reserved Wiesler, carries the film; he relies largely on facial expressions and body language to convey his character’s repressed desires.

As an added plug, The Lives of Others won the 2007 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.

* * *

I just learned that Ulrich Mühe, a renowned stage actor, was himself under Stasi surveillance in the 1980s, and that his actress-wife at the time turned out to be an informant. Makes The Lives of Others all the more poignant.

Sadly, Mühe died of stomach cancer this July. He was only 54.

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