The Magazine

Nightmare Come True

Love and distrust in the East German police state.

Mar 12, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 25 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
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The Lives of Others

Directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck

The pivotal scene in the magnificent new German movie The Lives of Others--which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film last week--takes place in an elevator. The year is 1984, and the occupant of the elevator is a severe and profoundly intelligent senior functionary of the East German security service named Wiesler. A stray word about the inhumanity of Stasi interrogations, or a joke about the dictator Erich Honecker, is all Wiesler needs to hear to make a simple mark on a piece of paper that will ruin someone's life.

A soccer ball rolls into the elevator, followed by a towheaded boy. The elevator begins to rise.

"Do you work for the Stasi?" the little boy asks.

"What do you know of the Stasi?" Wiesler says.

"My dad says you're a bad man who throws people in jail."

Wiesler's lips twitch slightly, and as is his habit, he asks the question intended to destroy the boy's happiness: "What is the name of--" The audience tenses, expecting the boy to answer with his father's name.

Then, unaccountably, Wiesler pauses before finishing his sentence: "--your ball. What is the name of your ball?"

The boy protests that his ball doesn't have a name. He looks oddly at Wiesler, not knowing that the Stasi man, who has spent decades destroying families without a second thought, has just spared him unimaginable pain.

The question is: Why has Wiesler spared him? That is the subject of The Lives of Others, an immensely rich and gripping film about the moral awakening of two men.

Wiesler is a classic figure of evil--a remorseless and relentless force with all the power of the totalitarian state behind him, dedicated to ferreting out any sign of free thinking among his East German countrymen. He finds his opposite in a naïf named Dreyman, a successful playwright who has made a decent life for himself by never challenging, never opposing, and never even thinking dark thoughts about the Communist tyranny that rules over him.

The lives of Wiesler and Dreyman intersect because of a woman--Christa-Maria, the nation's best-known stage actress and Dreyman's girlfriend. Wiesler is in attendance at the premiere of Dreyman's newest play, a ghastly blend of Brechtian pseudo-profundity and labored socialist realism. Dreyman is thought to be above suspicion (in part because he's friends with Erich Honecker's daughter). But when Wiesler catches a glimpse of the playwright embracing his lead actress, he says that Dreyman ought to be watched. It's not clear what it is about the two of them together that disturbs Wiesler--jealousy, perhaps--but his suggestion is eagerly embraced.

Wiesler has spent much of his career instructing Stasi trainees in interrogation techniques. As such, he has learned a good deal about human nature--for instance, that an innocent man accused of a crime will get angrier about the injustice being done to him over time while a man with something to hide will despair and cry. But it turns out there is something strangely unworldly about Wiesler. Unable to form normal human attachments, he lives alone, watches Stalinist propaganda on television in his spartan apartment, and calls in prostitutes to whom he clings desperately. It never occurs to him that his assignment might not be because ideological purity must be maintained on the East German stage. Rather, the minister of culture is besotted with Christa-Maria and wants to secure an advantage with her.

For his part, the playwright Dreyman has managed to navigate the treacherous shoals of working as an artist in a totalitarian society. He oversteps himself early on in the film, when he mentions that his former director has been "blacklisted" and is reprimanded for using the word by the minister of culture. Fear sparks behind his eyes. He has been provocative. He quickly tries to find another word, a safer word. But he, too, doesn't know that the minister is looking for anything he can use to press his advantage against Dreyman so he can control and dominate Christa the actress.

As Wiesler finds himself pulled--unwillingly--away from his narrow dogmatism into a state of vertiginous confusion, Dreyman's safe bubble starts to collapse around him as well. He feels himself being drawn into a dangerous form of social activism, and yet feels safe doing so because he can't imagine he is being watched 24 hours a day.

He is--by Wiesler.