WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD
I started writing what I expected to be a fairly decent length review of The Lives of Others a couple of months ago, but my schedule didn’t allow me to complete it in time for its Australian release. By then, it had surprisingly won the Best Foreign Language Oscar and so, of course, there were lots of reviews out there. With limited time to write, I feel more inclined to put my energy into films that get less media coverage - to champion the underdogs, so to speak.
Nonetheless, there was one important point in particular that I wanted to make about this not insignificant film. I describe it in this way, because though it’s not a perfect film per se, it is an exceptional debut by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck that has significance in today’s political climate.
By chance, I saw the film a second time after our plan to see Raúl Ruiz’s Klimt was thwarted. We arrived at ACMI our customary 30 minutes early to find tickets had sold out two hours earlier – most unusual for ACMI! Being a Saturday evening, we phoned the Westgarth ahead to book tickets for The Lives of Others, which Zoe hadn’t seen. And just as well – when we arrived, there was a huge queue and the session booked out.
Something that overwhelmed me on first viewing, and confirmed on the second, was the theme of loneliness. Whether it’s fascism, communism or any variety of political extremism, a climate of fear and distrust ensues that serves to isolate people. The result is loneliness.
At every step of the film, whenever people related, whoever they related to or whatever their status, all seemed chronically lonely. Wiesler goes home to an empty and austere apartment – his only intimacy is a quick fuck with a Stasi prostitute. Minister Hempf is shown alone in his apartment. Grubitz is never seen relating to anyone other than as a miserable weasel. Stage director Hauser feels ostracised, and Jerska’s black-listing forces a loneliness that drives him to suicide. Everyone in the bar is drinking alone. Underscoring all these cold relationships are an austere lighting and muted blue and grey colour scheme.
People became reclusive within their own homes, as depicted by Dreyer’s neighbour, Frau Meineke, having been threatened by Weisler to have her daughter removed from university if she spoke a word to anyone. When Dreyer innocently asked her to help him with his tie, she was terror-struck and couldn’t retreat to her apartment quick enough, like a turtle to its shell.
Even our main protagonist, Georg Dreyer, whose home was depicted in warmer tones and is in a relationship, always seems alone. He tells his partner, Christa-Maria that he always feared two things: being alone and not being able to write. But now the thing he now fears the most is losing Christa, who is being secretly pursued sexually with vigour by Minister Hempf (which is really the reason Dreyer is put under surveillance).
Towards the end of the film, Weisler is in another post (pun not intended), presumably for the previous five years, steaming open letters in a dark, lonely office devoid of natural light, almost like a dungeon. Who do we see behind him? None other than the goofy Stasi underling we saw joking about Honecker earlier in the film.
Two years after the fall of the Berlin Wall and Weisler is still working with the post office, depicted as a broken and solitary man, quietly delivering letters as a lowly servant of the state. Dreyer by chance is shocked to discover that he had been under full surveillance but that he had had an unknown guardian angel, code named HGW XX/7.
People don’t change, Hempf snorts earlier in the film, and apparently this is so. Because even when Dreyer learns who his benefactor is and tracks him down, they do not meet. Despite Dreyer's gratitude, disjunction - still. It is only two years later, upon publication of Dreyer’s novel “Sonata to a Good Man” that he gets to thank Weisler from afar. The second viewing really confirmed the significance of this drawn out aspect of the ending.
I only want to briefly mention the political significance of The Lives of Others. Of course the title refers to the obsession of the Stasi – its stated aim was “to know everything” and was chiefly concerned with the lives of others. Weisler, when he’s at the theatre is spying on others. When he is in the elevator and a child talks innocently about his father, Weisler is extracting information that could put his father behind bars. No-one was safe.
The Stasi and the GDR were an extreme that had occurred before and has occurred since. The current ‘War on Terror’ is the latest chapter of political extremism from so-called liberal democracies that are abusing their power to subvert civil liberties. These powers may be used today or they may be used in the future. But various fascist-like powers are now in place that can be used to isolate people and deny them their human rights. And that’s as much as I want to say on that subject for now, though I welcome any input.