News, recommendations, reviews

The Lives of Others

This is a hearty recommendation for Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s film “Das Leben der Anderen” (The Lives of Others), which is now showing in London. It’s the best film I have seen in a long time.

Made in Germany last year, it won the 2007 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film –but don’t let that put you off.

This film is stylishly produced with plenty of good, old fashioned human interest. Where it really impresses, though, is as a portrait of culture and creativity in the former Eastern bloc, where the state (and in this case especially the East German secret police the Stasi) took an active interest in both the work and the private lives of artists, writers and directors, in addition to overt political dissidents. The result is chilling.

Simply as an historical period piece, “Das Leben der Anderen” works remarkably well. It’s set in East Berlin in the 1980s, and is deeply evocative of the world before glasnost.

But it seems to me that much of the power of this film is not simply historical. The issues that it raises reverberate very uncomfortably today. This is not only for those who still live and work within totalitarian –or at least authoritarian- regimes elsewhere in the world. It also serves to remind those of us who live in considerably more liberal societies that our liberties are not historically inalienable. It also urges us to reflect on how much we should be prepared to accept censorship, surveillance and state control as the price we pay for security.

Crucially, we see in this film that it’s not a question of pantomime villains, of cardboard representations of good and bad. It’s often as much about what ordinary people will do to further their careers or even –probably more painfully- just to get by.

Put another way, if I had a viewing list as well as a reading list for students in CCI, this film would be on it. As you walk out of the cinema and into the street, it makes you look over your shoulder –at history.

Dr Richard Howells

4 thoughts on “The Lives of Others”

  1. ‘Das Leben der Anderen’ (Lives of Others) was a remarkable film and I am glad that the darker sides of the GDR regime have become the subject of a critically acclaimed film after so much ‘Ostalgie’ (nostalgia for the life in former East Germany) in funny but silly films such as ‘Sonnenallee’ or ‘Goodbye Lenin.’ Although I really liked ‘Lives of Others,’ I have a few reservations to share with you. Growing up in East Berlin myself, and having talked to family members and their friends, who, because they were part of the artist scene described in the film, suffered under the regime’s restrictions, several things struck me as unrealistic. I do not mind unrealistic elements for the sake of telling a story, but in this case they were a little too close to home. Firstly, I was shifting in my chair with embarassment when the Stasi agent played by Ulrich Mühe took up the yellow Brecht book and got completely immersed in it. There certainly were intellectuals in the Stasi, but not in the actual spying jobs. It was simply unbelievable. Secondly, a spy would never work on his own (for fear of betrayal) or in the attic of the house that his subjects live in. This would have been far too dangerous. The State’s surveillance machine was not so stupid as to risk being discovered. I am not a historian, but this is some of the critique I have heard from my parents’ generation. They didn’ t like the portrayal of East German intellectuals by West German actors (who you would recognise as such even if you didn’t know them). However, the scene were the three friends leave their flats to meet in the park in order to discuss subjects adversary to the State was chillingly realistic. Lastly, as a woman, I simply didn’t understand the Maria Sieland’s affair with the minister. Even in her circumstances, she did not have enter into a sexual relationship with Hempf.


  2. ** might contain spoiler! **

    Yes it was such a brilliant film – even for a non-European like me I got completely blown away. Like what Richard said, there are certain historical elements that make you think twice about current regime. Or for me, between Hong Kong and China. But on top of that it is the idea of safeguarding things that you believe and you think other should also do so… Phenomenal, a must see.


    ‘There certainly were intellectuals in the Stasi, but not in the actual spying jobs. It was simply unbelievable.’

    To me, the transitional phase from a heartless, mindless spy into a full-fledge humanist who risks his career to save a stranger could be equally ‘unbelievable’ – which is precisely why I love this film because it convinces me. Ulrich Mühe was such an amazing actor, especially I love how he conveys so much with minimal speech. Plus – don’t you think the point is that he was not an intellectual but Brecht’s book seemed to have work wonder in turning his iron heart into a human one?

    Finally – Maria Sieland’s affair – Hm… she could not do what she wanted to do in theater if she does not give in – that’s perhaps is quite a criticism of a rule-of-man regime. Perhaps you disagree on this as well, but perhaps for some artists, lives are dead if they are no longer allowed to do what they love?

    Okay, of course I am not a historian, but I agree that this film makes us think twice about a lot of things we have had taken for granted. And I wonder the red typist is a reference made to Slovaj Zizek’s story,

    In an old joke from the defunct German Democratic Republic, a German worker gets a job in Siberia; aware of how all mail will be read by the censors, he tells his friends: ‘Let’s establish a code: if a letter you get from me is written in ordinary blue ink, it’s true; if it’s written in red ink, it’s false.’ After a month, his friends get the first letter, written in blue ink: ‘Everything is wonderful here: the shops are full, food is abundant, apartments are large and properly heated, cinemas show films from the West, there are many beautiful girls ready for an affair — the only thing you can’t get is red ink.’

    Of the joke, Zizek writes:

    One starts by agreeing that one has all the freedoms one wants — then one merely adds that the only thing missing is the ‘red ink’: we ‘feel free’ because we lack the very language to articulate our unfreedom. What this lack of red ink means is that, today, all the main terms we use to designate the present conflict — ‘war on terror’, ‘democracy and freedom’, ‘human rights’, and so on — are false terms, mystifying our perception of the situation instead of allowing us to think it. In this precise sense, our ‘freedoms’ themselves serve to mask and sustain our deeper unfreedom.

    From the film, Zizek!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s