The Lives of Others

Original German title: Das Leben der Anderen; Cast: Ulrich Mühe, Martina Gedeck and Sebastian Koch; Director: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck

The place: East Germany. The year: 1984. The Staci, the secret police, are everywhere, snooping around, looking for spies, looking for defectors, looking for the enemies of Socialism. In order to identify the ‘traitors’, they need to ‘monitor’ others’ lives. And they do. When they have bugged your apartment, installed CCTV, and listening 24×7, they can find out awful lot about your life.

And that defines the title. In Berlin, a secret police is conducting surveillance on Georg Dreyman, a playwright and his girlfriend who also acts in his plays. The Staci are feared and often dreaded. By default they monitor all artists but Dreyman has escaped surveillance due to his strong pro-socialist views also his internationally recognised talent. (‘He’s the only writer from our side who is read in the West’). But alas, he’s after all an artist and a writer at that so he needs to be ‘monitored’ eventually. The best person to do this job was Gerd Wiesler, the Captain of the Staci team who is a staunch supporter of the Party and the State and also a master interrogator. But how much Wiesler himself know about Socialism? About the Minister Hempf whom he looks up to? Little did he know that his eavesdropping of Dreyman’s life was indeed his lesson on Socialism. As people live dreading the day the Staci is going to knock on their doors, and should look around before cracking a joke about Communism, as the concept of ‘sleep deprivation’ is executed in perfection, we learn more about the life in East Germany as Wiesler himself does.

The above description may deceive the type of film it is. Actually, the Lives of Others is a thriller, at times a serious edge of the seat variety. But its thriller element is only incidental and is not in those ‘Hollywood’ factory-made thrillers about CIAs and FBIs. It also has a happy ending, probably one of the most heart-warming endings I have experienced in the recent times. But the happy ending is genuinely satisfying and not hurriedly patched up like in those Hollywood rom-coms.

East Germany is no more and Communism is now on life-support. However, the ideas presented in the film can still be relevant. The whole film can be remade in Chinese and will make great sense to every Chinese citizen. I’m sure Ai Weiwei will identify with the plot, except the ending of course. You wonder what was running in the minds of those who approved the surveillance and those who carried it out. Did they think that listening to people’s bedroom conversations is the only way to keep Socialism alive? I have read the Communist Manifesto and never found a single line where Marx and Engels advocated it. How did the idea of proletariat revolution got mixed up with brutal suppression of personal liberties? Country after country, as we hear the same story after the collapse of Communism, and the stories we still hear leaking out of China, we wonder: Is it not possible to have a true proletariat revolution that also assures and nurtures human rights?

The Lives of Others won Oscar in Best Foreign Film category.  When the final credits roll, you won’t disagree with that decision.