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Back in the GDR

Everyone’s watching The Lives of Others


“Life was good in our little republic,” a former East German minister tells a former East German dissident writer toward the end of The Lives of Others, well after the Wall has come down. “Many only realize that now.”

Though the minister is a fictional character, he’s hardly alone in longing for the former East Germany. Two recent artifacts of post-Wall upheaval in the former German Democratic Republic (GDR) practically ooze a similar nostalgia, or Ostalgie as the Germans call it. 2003’s Good Bye Lenin!, directed by Wolfgang Becker, is a visual encyclopedia of East German consumer goods swept away by the sudden flood of Western products. In Becker’s movie, a young student tries to hide the collapse of the GDR from his ardently Communist mother, who went into a coma watching televised 1989 protests, by stocking her apartment with hard-to-find East German brands after she wakes up. While he succeeds in re-creating a miniature GDR in his mother’s apartment, the production itself relied heavily on CGI to scrub the encroaching West from the East Berlin neighborhoods where its exterior scenes were filmed.

Jana Hensel’s 2002 memoir Zonenkinder, translated into English as After the Wall, relates the author’s coming-of-age experiences in East Germany just as the regime was crumbling. Barely a teenager when the gates broke open, Hensel describes the void left by the sudden disappearance of all the old Communist certainties and waxes nostalgic for the recycling drives and other Pioneer activities of her childhood. Like Good Bye Lenin!, Hensel’s memoir paints an oddly appealing picture of a paternalistic regime that tucks its children in every night with bedtime broadcasts of Unsere Sandmännchen, “Our Little Sandman,” perhaps the most charming stop-motion children’s program ever. Could life have been a little good in the GDR after all?

The Lives of Others, written and directed by the thunderously Teutonic-sounding Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, puts paid to superficial Ostalgie, stripping retro-Ossi chic of its last bag of Mokka Fix Gold coffee and jar of Spreewald pickles. The GDR this movie’s characters inhabit is the one nobody wants to remember. It’s a GDR in which one out of 50 East German citizens is an informant for the state security and intelligence organization, the Stasi—betraying neighbors, friends and family members from fear or to secure token career or academic advancement. In this GDR, the Stasi, with around 100,000 employees and as many as 200,000 informants, penetrated every last nook and cranny of civilian life, weeding out and literally or figuratively destroying enemies of socialism.

Captain Gerd Wiesler (played by Ulrich Mühe) is one such weeder-outer. A devoted Stasi agent, he takes a severe, ascetic satisfaction in exposing enemies of the state. We first see him during an interrogation scene brilliantly crosscut with a classroom scene in which he passes on the secrets of interrogation to Stasi cadets even as he puts them to use to extract a confession from a young man suspected of aiding a defector to the West. We automatically assume the young man’s innocence, identifying Wiesler as the cold, inhuman face of the regime, and, physically speaking, actor Mühe seems born for the part.

Wiesler, alas, is less a political animal than is his comrade Grubitz (Ulrich Turkur), a Stasi lieutenant poised for a professorship and courting the favor of a high-ranking minister out to ruin a young writer named Georg Dreymann (Sebastian Koch). The minister covets the writer’s actress girlfriend, Christa-Marie (Marina Gedeck), and destroying the competition seems a promising seduction strategy. Grubitz will do anything to get ahead; Wiesler likes the work anyway and relishes a challenge. Surely, Grubitz thinks, they can dig up some kind of dirt on Dreymann, so Wiesler gamely goes ahead with bugging the writer’s apartment just in time for his 40th birthday party: an occasion sure to produce some dissident rumblings.

Then things start getting sticky. As his disgust with Grubitz and the minister grows, Wiesler finds himself developing compassion for the unsuspecting couple he’s been listening in on, gradually coming to sympathize with their suffering under state coercion. The transformation is a slow one, carefully plotted and ultimately credible.

Almost everything about The Lives of Others, in fact, seems credible, gradual and unforced. The decors do a lot of the work: The lovers’ cluttered, lived-in apartment and healthy love life contrast sharply with Wiesler’s spotless Spartan apartment and disappointing liaison with a prostitute, and there’s very little visually to break the depressing gray-brown spell of cheap slacks, fake-leather jackets and dingy concrete. Significantly, there isn’t a patch of red anywhere until the very end, when The Lives of Others effortlessly pulls off a simple but rewarding feat of movie magic. In some ways this feels like a movie that should have come out 10 or 15 years ago, but for that it’s no less powerful or relevant 10 or 15 years later.

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