I’m watching and writing about the Top 100 Movies of All-Time this year, based on multiple film publication lists. You can read more about how I came to rank and place the films on the list at my introduction post here.
The Lives of Others
List Appearances: 3/10
Average Rank: 49
Highest Rank: 42, on TimeOut’s 100 best movies of all time as chosen by actors
Total Final Score: 708
I went into The Lives of Others knowing only what was on the blurb from a quick Google search of it. I hadn’t heard of it before I saw it on this Top 100 list, and I have to say that is a travesty. This beautiful, perfect film is easily one of the best movies I’ve ever seen, and it will stay with me for years.
The Lives of Others is a German film by director, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, and set in 1984 East Germany, years before the wall collapsed. It tells the story of a Stasi captain Gerd Wiesler, a master of interrogation and surveillance. He receives approval to conduct surveillance on a playwright couple, whom he suspects may not be loyal to the Communist Party. The film was released in 2006 and won Best Foreign Film at the Oscars the following year. I wish it could have won more. That was the same year Crash won Best Picture, and while it pretended to talk about racism, The Lives of Others didn’t have to pretend, it showed the unflinching life of East Germans pre the collapse of the Berlin Wall. It showed a culture and world that was not too far from the one that was happening in America at the same time. The right to privacy and the lines between what was too much surveillance and not enough were very blurred at the time.
In East Germany in the early 80s, the Stasi, a secret police, were feared above all else in the country. It would not be unheard of that a man or woman would be taken in for a grueling 48-hour interrogation. Wiesler is one such expert. At the start of the film, he is conducting his interrogation of a man who may know whom assisted his neighbor in his fleeing the country. The interrogation occurred a year before, and he is playing the recording back to a classroom of willing students. He explains that a guilty man will tell the same story over and again as if it were rehearsed, but an innocent man’s story will change. His memory will fill in blanks or add subtle differences upon each retelling. When a student asks Wiesler if the tactic of keeping a man awake for 48 hours was inhumane, Wiesler subsequently marks an X on the student’s name on his seating chart. Moments later he explains to the class that interrogation subjects must put their hands on a cloth covering the seat, for potential future use for tracking dogs should he/she try to flee.
Wiesler is staunch in his faith of the Party, as it’s called. He watches through a permanent cautionary lens and suspects all malice in conversations about the Party. Early in the film, he goes to the theatre with his friend, and simultaneously watches the lead actress and the writer (both lovers) through binoculars. He is infatuated with her, but he suspects that the writer might be scheming, because of the company he keeps. When the minister asks that an investigation be made on the writer, Wiesler is the man that must find a way to bug the house and then conduct the surveillance. He sits in a sterile room with nothing but giant green headphones and a panel which allows him to listen to the apartment happenings and listen to calls received by the writer. The only emotion he shows are the word choices he makes when writing his reports on a typewriter.
The writer is, by all appearances, pro-Party. He does not wholly agree with the blacklisting of artists, such as his best friend and favorite director who had not had work for 10 years, but during an after-party, when he mentions the blacklisting, the minister admonishes him for using such a negative word. “The Party do not blacklist.” This contradiction is one of many that mirror a society that we live in today, and it’s astonishing that men like this are frequently given power.
As Wiesler listens to every private moment of the writer’s and actress’s life, it slowly becomes apparent that though they do not always support the actions of their government, they are not willing participants in any sort of revolution. It also is apparent that the minister desires the actress and derides the investigation for the lack of evidence. The Minister rapes her in the back of his car, in an uncomfortable scene. She succumbs simply because if she does not her career will be over.
It becomes more evident as the film progresses, that Wiesler is slowly becoming sympathetic with the lovers. Through the movie, there are lengthy scenes of the life he leads. He comes home to an empty apartment, in a room that looks like nothing more than a hotel room. His life is a lonely one, and at first glance, he seems content with his place in the world. But there is a conflict behind his emotionless gaze.
The characters are all full fleshed out in this movie, and the writing shows both the sadness and the beauty of the human spirit. There is no melodrama here, either, as you may see in a Hollywood vehicle of the same kind. But mostly, what this film does the best is show the history of a country that time has tried to forget and the hope of its people.
The Lives of Others is a truly amazing movie that deserves to be lauded as among the best of all-time and a great example that not all great films have to come from the United States. I cannot recommend it enough!
Check out my next piece, The Treasure of Sierra Madre, #74 on the Top 100 list.