Though The Lives of Others is the film debut of Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, it clearly articulates both the thirtysomething German director’s technical facility and his understanding of palatably packaged cultural history as the safest road to the international market (and, possibly, an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film). The fall of the Berlin Wall is still half a decade away as Captain Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe) is introduced showcasing his mastery of the craft of mental torture on a prisoner. A rigid member of East Germany’s Stasi security force, Wiesler is a saturnine regime puppet whose ramrod spine doesn’t ease up even when he’s nuzzling the breasts of a pendulous whore—a perfect instrument, that is, for an era when the GDR government trafficked in steady paranoia by keeping ruthless taps on its populace. Even his colleagues think his dedication to what he calls “the party’s shield and sword” is a bit much: “All that teaching is ruining your instincts,” laughs one superior, so what better way for the automaton to regain them than by monitoring a couple of artists, seeing his own chilly orderliness thaw while he learns from their humanity?
Settled with his surveillance equipment above the apartment of successful playwright Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) and his girlfriend and leading-lady Christa (Martina Gedeck), Wiesler learns that his assignment is motivated less by suspicions of seditious activity than by the Minister’s (Thomas Thieme) lusty interest in the actress; the protagonist’s gradual moral shifts are mirrored by Dreyman’s, who turns progressively (and riskily) politicized after the suicide of a blacklisted friend. The narrative machinery chugs so tautly that it’s not until the suspense element drops off near the end that Donnersmarck’s cunning manipulation of character and history becomes apparent: Wiesler becomes the couple’s guardian angel, but it’s the director who ultimately clips the picture’s wings by insisting on a trite feeling of uplift that inexcusably oversimplifies a nation’s social struggle and grappling toward unification.
The Orwellian intimations (the sprawling narrative kicks off in 1984) are, like the copious shout-outs to Brecht and Beethoven, catnip to audiences who never heard of The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum or cannot recall how more searchingly Francis Ford Coppola employed surveillance to study emotional alienation in The Conversation. Tepid reduction geared as an important look into a dismaying not-so-distant past, The Lives of Others remains utterly bloodless except for the obviously symbolic crimson ink Dreyman uses to type his subversive manifestos.