Curious that writer/director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck has claimed that his debut "The Lives of Others" was urged on by disgust with the phenomenon of ostalgie, nostalgia for (and the kitschification of) life in the German Democratic Republic. The only complicated sentiment in von Donnersmarck’s exasperating Stasi-era drama could be a precursor to that melancholic longing. Years after the film’s main intrigues have passed, the Berlin Wall has fallen, and the remaining characters have dazedly folded themselves into Western life, playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) encounters a former GDR official outside a performance of one of his own plays. The man once came close to destroying Dreyman’s life, but now they are just two more German citizens killing time in a theater lobby, and he turns to Dreyman and pitilessly points out that Dreyman hasn’t written anything since the crumbling of the Republic.
We do see Dreyman finishing something new before the film’s end, but the point is fair â€” nothing will ever again have the urgency or thrill of the subversive essay he has smuggled out of the country for publication during the film’s first setting in 1984. And certainly one can’t imagine that anyone will invest as much attention in his career of a playwright as the East German government, who send Captain Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich MÃ¼he) to wire the apartment Dreyman shares with his actress girlfriend Christa-Maria (Martina Gedeck). Ostensibly this is because some see subversive potential in the previously loyal Dreyman; in reality, a higher-up has designs on Christa-Maria and would like an excuse to get Dreyman out of the way. As Dreyman begins to harbor doubts about the regime, Wiesler is seduced, with outrageously watery-eyed romanticism, by the music and literature he’s unwillingly exposed to while quivering in his headphones at his surveillance post in the attic of the apartment building.
He’s also, less adorably, drawn in by the glamour of the couple’s lives â€” Dreyman and Christa-Maria flutter around their high-ceilinged apartment like stylish birds of paradise, reassuring us that arty people are more attractive, more interesting and have better sex. In contrast, Wiesler goes home to a life that is colorless â€” literally, in the case of his grim Soviet-chic apartment and bachelor’s instameal â€” and has a sad encounter with a busy prostitute that ends with him begging her in vain to stay a few minutes longer. It’s a fatal flaw of "The Lives of Others" that the world it depicts never seems reasonably inhabited â€” von Donnersmarck recreates a sense of overwhelming oppression but never gives us an inkling of life grinding on and mostly functioning despite it. Everyone government-aligned is vindictive, corrupt and, as an added bonus, physically repellant or, in the case of Wiesler, scarcely alive, devoted to the job for lack of anything else. Dreyman, on the other hand, has actually been living quite comfortably in willful blindness until he chooses otherwise, at which point the sympathetic Wiesler starts covering for him â€” but even he’s spared any uncomfortable toeing of the party line. Would it be so terrible to acknowledge some people, somewhere, must have believed in the GDR? Von Donnersmarck’s unsparing absolutes make it tough to believe the characters wouldn’t have immediately shaken off the system, a folie Ã plusieurs that would clear right up with a full night’s sleep and some hot tea.
"The Lives of Others" opens in limited release on February 9th.
+ "The Lives of Others" (Sony Pictures Classics)