Others' Lives

Last week we finally got around to watching The Lives of Others, about Stasi agents spying on a playwright, to which I was led by this review from the late WFB.
The watchword of the Stasi was information. They would use all their powers, which were plenary, to press their totalitarian thumb down on any expression of life in East Germany. In this case, they had their eye on a playwright who sought to write about the way he and his fellow East Germans lived. To effect their surveillance the Stasi used the most rudimentary tool of social highwaymanry, the listening device. The writer is away from his lair for a day, and no fewer than eight technicians swoop down on his apartment, from which moment there is not a private swallow in the life of the author and his lady and his friends.

Omnipresent in the film is the Stasi officer who is listening to it all, turning the device over to a coadjutor every eight hours, together with notes about the conversations he has overheard during his watch. And then, and then, there is a trickle of humanity, which quickly turns the drama into three parts, Stasi vs. German humankind vs. Stasi. The tension mounts to heart-stopping pitch and I felt the impulse to rush out into the street and drag passersby in to watch the story unfold.

The principal players are captivating, especially the main Stasi officer, who, without a change in aspect of his dour countenance, undergoes this convulsion of the soul, which permits the author life, though without his martyred lady. There is then the sublime vengeance of a published book’s dedication to the redemptive German functionary who briefly interrupted hell in East Germany, pending, finally, the eradication of the terrible Berlin Wall.
I can't add to what others said at the time of the movie's release about the importance of some kind of record on film of the horrors of the old Communist system, or how good the film is -- a real meditation on freedom and the corruption of everything where it doesn't exist.

I will note, however, that the film could not be more "German." It includes the most ugly and joyless sex scene (which is part of the point of the story, but ugh! German filmmakers could drive anyone to celibacy --and we're Catholic, so we exercise "custody of the eyes" and look away!). And "Art" saves the day (the turning point in the film is the main character --a Stasi agent-- hearing his subject play a new musical composition --"Sonata for A Good Man". The writer he's spying on asks, "could anyone hear this --truly hear it-- and not be a good man?" And from the moment of his hearing that song, the agent begins to change).

Update: Mr. W. thinks my amused final comment gives short shrift to the film. I didn't intend to be disrespectful. It's a marvelous film, and a meditation on how Beauty leads a cruel member of the Stasi into a profound act of self-sacrifice in favor of liberty and the dignity of the human person. All I meant to suggest is that there's still a humorous element in recognizing that only a German could have made this film in this way.