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Film around the world: Germany’s The Lives of Others

Image credit: CC by 3.0, Rainer Mittelstädt via Wikimedia Commons

I’m sure that those of us who studied A-Level German back in the day (not so long ago, if you’re a first-year reading this) will be familiar with Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s 2006 film The Lives of Others (or Das Leben der Anderen, to give it its German title). Arguably one of Germany’s internationally best-known films of recent years, thanks largely to its ‘Best Foreign Language Film of the Year’ Oscars win, Donnersmarck crafts its narrative to shine a light on one of the German Democratic Republic’s most notorious government departments: the Ministry of State Security, or the ‘Stasi’ for short.

The Lives of Others centres around Gerd Wiesler, a fictional Stasi officer tasked with monitoring the behaviour of a potentially dissident playwright and his partner. Donnersmarck uncovers the truly sinister nature of the former regime, not by concentrating solely on the barbaric techniques employed by the Stasi (though there is plenty of that within the narrative too), but by turning the film into a heart-wrenching character study. The Lives of Others brilliantly examines its repressed and morally ambiguous protagonist, who, despite his position of relative power, suffers considerably throughout the film. His story depicts the consequences of a life lived under an authoritarian regime. Wiesler is a profoundly lonely man, acting – in a sense – as a metaphor for East Germany’s near-complete isolation from Western Europe. He can only experience love and cultural enlightenment passively – through the tinny sound from a hidden microphone, by spying on a loving couple from afar with a pair of government-issue binoculars – with the physical distance between himself and those he grows fond of becoming painfully clear to the viewer. It is only through his existence as the protagonist of the film that he is humanised at all. The ambivalence and hints of individualism that Donnersmarck bestows upon him stand in stark contrast to the anonymisation that Wiesler is subjected to in his role as an intelligence officer. Donnersmarck does not only address this through the narrative progression, but also by utilising the film’s visuals. Wiesler physically blends into his surroundings frequently, often barely standing out amongst the dreary greys and browns of Donnersmarck’s expertly composed shots. He is powerless to truly break free from the world that he lives in, completely unable to experience a life outside of the confines of the GDR.

Of course, there is very little internationalism to speak of within the universe of the film. As is the case with many authoritarian governments (take North Korea’s recent censoring of the completely harmless Alan Titchmarsh’s jeans as an example), media, news, and culture that came from outside of the regime was heavily restricted or outright banned. Although the GDR was practically impenetrable from the inside out, nowadays international audiences are able to see clearly into what the regime once was thanks to, among other sources, films like The Lives of Others and Good Bye, Lenin!, another German A-Level favourite. To make history more accessible is invaluable, especially if it inspires the audience to look beyond the fictional sphere into reality. As the saying goes, knowledge is power, and by having access to such insights into the past, we should be able to learn from it and avoid repeating our mistakes in the future.

Having observed the struggles of the characters of The Lives of Others, it is impossible not to treasure our unrestricted access to international culture and freedom of expression when compared to the totalitarianism of life within the former German Democratic Republic. It is because of this freedom that we can enjoy and learn from films such as this, which can provide us with awareness of, to return to the title, the lives of others who have lived (and may continue to live) so differently to the way that we do today.

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