The Lives of Others

Fabulous movie !

I love the conspiracy and secrecy of the erstwhile Communist countries – the cloak and dagger stuff. When I discovered this movie, I know I am going to get a taste of Stasi, the East German Secret Police. And, I got a full dose of Stasi in this movie.

“The Lives of Others” is more than Stasi – it is a complex anti-regime movie directed elegantly by  Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. The movie won the 2006 Academy Award for the Best Foreign Language Film.

I was impacted by the Stasi Captain, acted out in the movie by Ulrich Muhe. He comes through as an Idealist, a Communist patriot of GDR (German Democratic Republic). He actually believes in what he is doing – the sincere kind of Stasi agent. He thinks whatever he is doing or asked to do is for the benefit of the government. So, he gets seriously disenchanted when the Minister for Culture uses the Stasi (and him) for conducting surveillance for his own personal benefit.

The other key thing which impacts the Stasi Captain (who is tasked with running the surveillance) is the amount of debate which goes on in the playwright’s house and the emotions to which he becomes privy to. He is impacted so much that he decides to shield the playwright and his actress lover from the long arms of the Minister and does not report the actual goings on. The movie depiction shows the human side of the Captain (not the Stasi), and his ability to subject himself to human emotions, though he is a skilled interrogator (also shown in the movie a few times). Not every Communist spy agent is a rock hard Communist, at the end of the day everyone is a human being.

The movie is very well directed with a tight sequence of events unfolding, and the audience being kept in a questioning mode on where the movie is ultimately headed: “is the Stasi going to find the typewriter with red ink ribbon” is a major question on every viewer’s mind. Another question is “how can the actress girlfriend turn against her own lover in front of the Stasi and become an informant”. Apparently, there is a trade-off between life and human relations behind the iron curtain, it seems. It is a cruel thing when someone in your own family reports on you to save their skin and let their career continue to flourish. The movie also shows that the spy agency is subject to the whims of any government minister, notwithstanding their reputation for ruthless efficiency on government spy business (not the kind of business they are forced into by the infamous Minister of Culture). I was wondering how the Minister of Culture survived the fall of the Berlin Wall and nonchalantly tells the playwright that he was under surveillance during those dreadful years of communist rule.

The playwright (played by Sebastian Koch) discovers the truth about the surveillance carried out on his home, and also the truth about his actress girlfriend (played by Martina Gedeck). He finds that Stasi Captain’s code name and his actual identity. Such things have happened to many Germans in the aftermath of the re-unification between East and West Germany and should have been traumatic to say the least.

“The Lives of Others” is a wonderful movie, too important to be missed. It also is a relevant movie in today’s world when Edward Snowden has revealed much about government spying. The contradiction is that Snowden also proves that the U.S. government was not only spying on “some” people but even on key allies in Western governments such as West German Chancellor Merkel and French President Hollande. So, this movie is not just a showcase of the acting talent from East Germany and a story from the past. It is as relevant today as it was in the Eighties and Nineties.

A Five Star Movie, in my opinion.


Vijay Srinivasan

18th October 2015


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