The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen)
Written and directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck

The new film from Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, from his own screenplay, is a charming little character study that examines human nature in an unusual and surprisingly - some would say alarmingly - relevant context. Von Donnersmarck uses the events of Communist regime in East Germany, particularly the ubiquitous spying of the Stasi secret police organization, to examine the idea that actions have unintended consequences, and that lives can find themselves inspired and transformed by such chains of events.

B.F. Skinner observed long ago that inter-actions between organisms are never one sided, subject/object conditions. There is always a "give and take" between them that affects the "observer" or "experimenter" - no matter how "objective" he imagines his point of view to be - as clearly as it affects the organism with which he is working. A similar observation is at the heart of The Lives of Others: we cannot involve ourselves in others lives without consequences to ourselves.

In finding redeeming human connection in the depths of the terror-inspiring, ruthless, wildly powerful Stasi bureaucracy, von Donnersmarck suggests that there may be something operating in human beings, even in the most unlikely times and places, that can transcend petty self-interest and immediate gratification, in service of a higher and more noble aspect of our "human nature."

On the surface, the story unfolds as a sort of "espionage thriller" along the lines of "Notorious" or "The Spy Who Came In From The Cold." In Cold War East Germany, "apolitical" author Georg Dreyman writes work that is so personal and subtle that the authorities can't find fault with it -despite their almost universal paranoia. In fact, they hold him up as "proof" of intellectual freedom in their society. Dreyman's more active friends question his commitment to such virtues, and suggest that he is "going along to get along."

A corrupt and self-important Stasi functionary, attracted to Dreyman's actress girlfriend, Christa-Maria Sieland, decides to have him put under surveillance, hoping to possibly score points within the bureaucracy by "unmasking" him and at the same time gathering information he can use to blackmail Christa-Maria into a relationship. He assigns an idealistic, up-and-coming officer to head the surveillance team.

This officer, Captain Gerd Wiesler, takes his job seriously. Punctual, efficient and thorough, Wiesler has convinced himself that - in spite of the dread the Stasi inspire - he is part of a team that is doing what is necessary to protect his country. He sees Dreyman as a representative of decadent, elitist intellectualism, and a potential enemy of the State. But as things unfold, Wiesler learns all kinds of things that make him question the values that he holds as most basic. The behavior of his superiors leads him to doubt the true purpose of the system he serves. The actions of the writer and his friends, as Dreyman is gradually led to take a stand against the oppressive status quo, begin to seem more and more reasonable - even admirable.

The tension of the film comes from watching Wiesler caught in an unlooked for awakening that brings with it almost unbearable tension. On one hand, there is his loyalty to the State, undermined by those who have betrayed the ideals for which they are supposedly working, and his concern for his own professional - and even physical - survival. On the other is the sympathy he develops with Dreyman, Sieland and their friends, his growing understanding of the issues and concerns that motivate them, and his anxiety as he sees the trap set for them - of which he is an integral part - being slowly tightened.

Watching this weak, insecure, unremarkable everyman arrive at a decision which will change not only his own life but those of many others as well, is a study in human behavior that is colored with humor, self-recognition, embarrassment and eventually compassion. It's not a monumental struggle - although it may have very serious consequences. It is the small struggle for one ordinary human soul - and in that, it's a tale that is both modest and profound. That it has resonance far beyond Cold War-era East Germany, as the paranoiac sub-structures of institutionalized oppression are once again being cultivated, makes it especially timely.

Von Donnersmarck has crafted a very carefully-tuned script. It's very "talkiness" serves to define the characters as well as the words they say. Dreyman, Sieland and their friends are all professional communicators - words are the tools of their trade. The screenwriter uses this fact to allow them to lay out in some detail their own dilemma - the need to make difficult, nuanced choices among their professional and personal survival, the moral demands of their work and the political and social climate in which they are immersed.

Wiesler, by contrast, has relatively few lines. Most of what we learn about him we learn by watching - essentially spying on him, just as he spies on Dreyman and his friends. No one comes off as a hero, per se. Everyone is "tainted" by their fear and self interest. But in the end, it is not some idealized purity von Donnersmarck is arguing for, as much as it is the courage and conviction to make the right decision when it counts - to "do the right thing."It's admirable that he is able to create a story that works simultaneously on the moral/rational, and on the emotional level.

As director, he has assembled a fine cast to help him tell the story. Sebastian Koch, as Dreyman, is a believable media-star, with his charismatic bearing and handsome face. He plays Dreyman's self-protective ambivalence, his hesitation to stand up for his friends, in a way that highlights the small concessions we all make to "avoiding trouble" and how they can have serious cumulative repercussions. His seemingly charmed life, with talent, celebrity, influence, friends, makes him a perfect foil for the isolated, circumscribed non entity, Wiesler.

As his girlfriend, Christa-Maria, Martina Gedeck contrasts her respect for Dreyman and her desire to be identified with the creative life he leads with her own narrow self interest. First she betrays herself and her lover for the sake of her career and ultimately she abandons- again by small degrees - whatever moral judgement she may have had. Gedeck effectively communicates the desperation, resignation and surrender the terrible fear the Stasi generated could evoke.

The compelling center of all this Ulrich Mhe as Wiesler. He lets us feel how the careful, dispassionate, disciplined observer is slowly sucked into the maelstrom of feelings he is watching from a distance, how the very problems with which his "subjects" are grappling gradually creep into his own life, and become his own. Mhe embodies this gradual transformation almost on an unconscious level, so that through small gestures, hesitations, movements of the eyes, we begin to know what is happening to him even before he does.

The other characters are equally well-drawn and brought to life. Wiesler superiors, Lieutenant-colonel Grubitz and Minister Hempf (Ulrich Tukur and Thomas Thieme) are models of venal, petty-bureaucratic power-mongering but manage to emerge as individuals rather than "types." Dreyman's friends, Paul Hauser (Hans-Uwe Bauer), Albert Jerska (Volkmar Kleinert) and Karl Wallner (Matthias Brenner) are likewise typical of individuals who can always be found at the center of an active political/intellectual ferment, but the quality of the writing and the performances allows them to be specific people, with whom we can identify, and for whose problems we can have real empathy.

Although this was relatively low-budget European production, the simplicity of the sets, costumes, effects and so on, how effectively even simple production values, carefully applied, can support good cinematic story-telling. Small "faults" like occasionally muddied or hollow sound, and uneven lighting end up adding to the sense of "realism" that puts the ideas of the film across.

The cinematography by Hagen Bogdanski is well-tuned to the tone of the film, conveying the sense of oppression, the claustrophobia, the aridity of life under the Stasi's iron grip. Von Donnersmarck uses deliberate pacing and editing much as Alfred Hitchcock did, to build an uncomfortable sense of anxious anticipation that mirrors the feeling of the characters.

This is von Donnersmarck's first feature film. It is a polished, coherent effort of which any filmmaker, of any degree of experience, would have a right to be proud. Both as a well-told tale, and as one that can offer us insight into some of what is best and worst in that confusing compound of influences we call "human nature," The Lives of Others - a nominee for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film - richly deserves our attention.

But that's just my opinion. What's yours? Let me know.