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The Lives of Others has a superbly alienated title and a quintessentially 20th-century premise. Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s first feature is set back in the days when the Berlin Wall seemed the immovable center of the geopolitical universe.
It’s 1984: Orwell is really happening! The model Stalinist police state, called the German Democratic Republic, has more snoops, tapped phones, and bugged bedrooms per capita than any place in the world; the Stasi (state security apparatus) maintains some 100,000 agents and at least twice as many “informal” informers. Blackmail rules. Spies infiltrate opposition groups to spy on each other. Graffiti is duly noted, along with jokes and rumors; the Stasi carefully collects the body odors of suspects to be archived as future evidence. It is around the time The Lives of Others unfolds that Party leadership decides to generate individual computer files for every one of East Germany’s 16 million citizens. (The project failed; there were only six million dossiers when the GDR collapsed.)
The 33-year-old writer-director’s melodramatic evocation of everyday betrayal makes vivid a distinct form of social existence. Living under the glare of total surveillance, giving unintended meaning to Socrates’ thoughts on the “unexamined life,” the movie’s characters are the shadows cast by their files. The Lives of Others and the more tightly focused Decomposition of the Soul, a Belgian documentary opening this week at Film Forum, go through the looking glass into a world of self-perpetuating paranoia and proliferating fictions. As The Lives of Others‘ secret star, Stasi officer Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe), tells a hapless detainee during the course of a 40-hour interrogation (“decomposition” in Stasi jargon): Not knowing one’s crime is a crime in itself. Or, as one victim explains in Decomposition of the Soul, the Stasi’s mission was not so much to find as to manufacture behavior, “to make people feel guilty.”
Both films add to the corpus of Stasi art. Soon after unification, East Germany’s most distinguished novelist, Christa Wolf, published What Remains—the story of a day under the Stasi’s unblinking eye. (Shortly after that, it was revealed Wolf herself had been an informant a quarter-century before.) Cornelia Schleime, the East German Cindy Sherman, obtained her files and augmented them with staged photographic self-portraits to parody their allegations. By 1992, the German government created an interactive Stasi museum. Foreigners contributed as well: British journalist Timothy Garton Ash found his dossier and wrote a book about it; artists Jane and Louise Wilson’s Stasi City used footage shot in the Stasi’s trashed East Berlin headquarters to create a spooky structuralist video installation.
Self-proclaimed “shield and sword of the ruling party,” the Stasi was dedicated to eradicating the “enemies of socialism” —which is to say, policing the socialist intelligentsia. The fattest files belonged to writers, actors, and artists. In a perverse sense, surveillance was a form of entertainment; as proposed by The Lives of Others, life lived under continuous observation was theater. The movie’s designated victim is the playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch), “our only non-subversive writer who is also read in the West,” as a cynical superior notes in assigning Wiesler to the case. Dreyman isn’t exactly Josef K. He’s far more abstract—handsome, charismatic, and impossibly naive, imagining that, because he hasn’t done anything wrong, he is beyond suspicion.
In a quasi-military operation, the fastidious Wiesler wires the apartment inhabited by Dreyman and his leading lady Christa (Martina Gedeck) in time to eavesdrop on the writer’s 40th birthday party. It’s a fiesta of drunken malcontents, each accusing the other of being with the Stasi. From the strategically empty upstairs garret, the impassive Wiesler ponders it all, tracking the action on a full-scale floor plan of the flat below. Dreyman is an artist and so is he. Indeed, Wiesler is Dreyman’s equal in idealism. He’s a true believer who is genuinely disturbed to learn his mission is personal: The porcine Minister of Culture has designs on Christa. Wiesler contrives to have Dreyman figure this out. That’s the beginning.
Soon, the severe Stasi robot is sneaking downstairs to borrow poetry books. Under this benign influence, he becomes a vicarious participant in Dreyman and Christa’s love affair. Listening to their “confessions,” he is their guardian angel—as The Lives of Others is a materialist gloss on Wim Wenders’s free-floating allegory of divided Berlin,
Wings of Desire. No less than Bruno Ganz’s empathetic seraphim, Wiesler longs to be human. He drops a tear when he hears Dreyman playing the piano to mourn his mentor’s death. And in the movie’s crucial scene, Wiesler goes to a shabby bar to take comfort among the common people. Suddenly, a distraught Christa materializes and he cannot help but approach her as a fan: “I’m your audience.”
The performance continues. Dreyman decides to write an essay exposing East Germany’s inordinately high suicide rate. As cover, he and his dissident friends pretend they’re working on a play written to celebrate the DDR’s 40th anniversary; in a further theatrical stunt, they create a fake incident to see if Dreyman’s apartment is as clean as he imagines, little suspecting the nature of the angel listening in.
The Lives of Others is a compelling thriller but an unsatisfying character drama. As the Stasi-man becomes more human, the movie’s tragic trajectory is betrayed by an increasingly squishy humanism—even more than the artists he’s invented, the filmmaker exercises the power to make everything (almost) right.
More tough-minded and even poetic, The Decomposition of the Soul has no drama of which to speak: Its subject is a state of being. Like The Lives of Others
, Nina Toussaint and Massimo Iannetta’s documentary opens with a “decomposition.” Here, however, the breakdown never ends. Beginning with the over-bright interrogation rooms, the movie is a victim’s tour of Stasi facilities—describing a process of total dehumanization and uncanny familiarity: “Everything is as you imagined it.” (Or as Kafka wrote it.)
Spartan in its means, The Decomposition of the Soul concerns two cases. Sigrid Paul brought her infant son to West Berlin for medical treatment and was separated from him once the Wall went up. She and her husband attempted to reach the West with forged documents. Her more serious crime, however, was sheltering three other would-be escapees. Similarly, Hartmut Richter—an East German who made it to the West and became a human rights activist—was imprisoned on a return visit when he was caught smuggling out his sister.
The Decomposition of the Soul is an annotated Stasi City. The camera ponders the empty rooms and prowls the deserted corridors as the victims describe the minutiae of sleep deprivation and sensory starvation—a state of endless waiting in which everything that happens, happens suddenly. The inmates took it for granted that any cell mate was an informer and that the guards themselves were “controlled.” Freedom came as a shock, as did the discovery of how prevalent informing and control had been on the outside. The Decomposition of the Soul is a deliberately confining movie, but unlike The Lives of Others, it offers no closure.