Gerd Wiesler is an unlikely protagonist. A member of East Germany’s much-feared secret police, the Stasi, he is conducting an interrogation when we first meet him in East Berlin before the fall of the Wall. Wiesler has deprived his subject of sleep and forced him to sit awkwardly on the backs of his hands for hours, and the man is ready to crack. He is pitiful, begging for rest, crying with exhaustion, repeating his cover story with increasing desperation, and Wiesler never flinches, never stops pressing the poor man to betray his friends.
But Wiesler isn’t a sadist. He’s a consummate professional, performing even his most horrifying duties with great skill and tireless efficiency. Only gradually do we realize that, more significantly, Wiesler is also a true patriot, a quietly earnest believer in the unrealized ideals of his decaying country. What first appears to be bloodless workmanship is actually something more complicated: not zeal, exactly, but the sincerity of a man who believes he is doing the right thing.
The Lives of Others tells the story of how Wiesler loses that belief, how he awakens to the corruption of the Stasi and begins to incrementally reject the organization’s goals and methods. It takes the shape of a thriller but has the soul of a character study, tracking Wiesler’s gradual transformation parallel to that of Georg Dreyman, a playwright on whom he has been assigned to spy. The elegant pairing, subtle and thought-provoking, is indicative of the artistry of the film, the remarkable feature debut of writer-director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck.
It helps, of course, that von Donnersmarck has assembled a stunning cast. Sebastian Koch plays Dreyman with unexpected tentativeness, helping us see that dissidence does not come to the character naturally. He isn’t confrontational, he isn’t a radical, he’s merely a good man trying to feel his way through an ethical maze. Martina Gedeck delivers a heartbreaking performance as Dreyman’s girlfriend, Christa-Maria, tenderly exposing the woman’s fragility and fears so that we can sympathize with her, even when she crumbles.
The star, however, is Ulrich Mühe, who plays Wiesler. Wiesler doesn’t speak much and certainly never articulates his reasons for coming to protect Dreyman and Christa-Maria, even as he has been charged to spy on them and expose Dreyman for sedition. The transformation and shifting loyalties can be seen only in Mühe’s eyes and in the infitinitesimal changes in his character’s stoic demeanor.
As Wiesler eavesdrops on Dreyman and Christa-Maria, he grows to care about them and so do we, but more than that, we come to care about Wiesler. Wiesler hardly endears himself to us during the opening interrogation scene, but over time he redeems himself, in his own eyes and in ours.
It’s that openness to redemption and the possibility of change that makes The Lives of Others so moving. I wasn’t really expecting that, to be honest. The movie conveys the colorlessness and rot of early 1980s East Germany all too well, and at one point, it seems ready to conclude on a terribly bleak note, with tragedy and shattered illusions negating most of the good the characters have achieved.
But The Lives of Others has an epilogue, taking us forward a few years, past the fall of the Berlin Wall to a time when hope seems possible—an artistic choice that struck me as daring. The epilogue could have become sentimental all too easily, suddenly turning Wiesler into an emotive being or forgetting all Dreyman has lost, but it stays honest to the characters and ends quietly but beautifully as a testament to what good people, even oppressed good people, can do.