Who watches the watcher?

‘Lives Of Others’ examines the hypocrisy behind paranoid surveillance

by Michael Garberich

Germany, 1984. The German Democratic Republic – which, as we know, will fall in five years with the destruction of the Berlin Wall – precipitated in the weeks following Nov. 9, 1989: The date the government granted its citizens permission to cross the 28-year-old barrier, and reunification between the country’s East and West began.

“The Lives of Others”
DIRECTED BY: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
STARRING: Ulrich Mühe, Sebastian Koch, Martina Gedeck
PLAYING AT: Uptown Theater, (612) 825-6006

But director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, whose name alone – admit it – ignites your imagination and launches scenes of intrigue, keeps the landmark event at considerable distance for the majority of “The Lives of Others.”

In the meantime, he orchestrates a well-tempered thriller that owes more than just its historical placement to Orwell’s eerily prescient novel and its omniscient, coldly affectionate “Big Brother.”

The film is supported by two men who never appear onscreen together, the reportedly state-loyal playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) and his opposite, Gerd Wiesler, the Stasi captain assigned to document his every move, monitoring him with wires and video in an attic above his apartment.

The ostensible purpose is to ensure the artist’s said loyalty. However, Wiesler soon discovers the corruption undermining the operation. Culture Department Minister Hempf (Thomas Thieme) has only ordered the surveillance to locate some dirt on Dreyman so he can freely swindle the auteur’s girlfriend and star of his plays, Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck with moments of Anouk Aimée in Fellini’s “8 ½”).

Donnersmarck depicts East Berlin’s power hierarchies as propelled by a Darwinian competitiveness in which the wiliest survive.

Another of Wiesler’s superiors, and a former classmate, Lt. Col. Grubitz (Ulrich Tukur), is a deploringly haughty businessman always reminding him of what this or that means for his career.

Ultimately, the good men are as clearly defined as the bad, and the woman is collateral damage in a refined, understated battle of subterfuge that captures the teeming paranoia of “Big Brother,” making the Patriot Act feel like a rough draft.

When subjected to synopsis, “Others'” bones seem brittle and meek, but its formulaic simplicity is measured precisely, ticking with the exactitude of so many train station clocks in East Berlin.

The film prizes the encounter, those moments when a character must make a decision, minute opportunities to tweak the mechanics and thus change the machine.

“The Lives of Others” possesses an immeasurable depth that commemorates the individual’s importance during a time and in a place that tried to subsume the plural into a definitive singular.

But its beauty and significance hardly lie in its distanced observation of the past. Captured in space and time, film always tends toward the present.

The Wall eventually crumbles, the wires eventually link (and then disappear) and as we know today, when things fall, people notice. Take notice.