Do not walk — run — to your nearest video store and rent this movie. This winner of the 2006 Oscar for Foreign Language film deserves to be at the top of your Netflix queue. German, with English subtitles, “The Lives of Others” runs about 2 hours, 20 minutes. It is rated R for some sexual scenes and nudity.
Ken and I picked it up last night, mostly on the strength of this endorsement by William F. Buckley (how many time does Buckley write about movies?) It was, how shall I say?, the most engrossing political thriller and story of hope that I have ever seen.
The story takes place in 1984 East Germany, when the secret police, or Stasi, pretty much knew everything about everybody and think nothing of stuffing people in prison for a few months for badmouthing the Party. A careless comment, a casual joke, and you could find yourself shoved into a dead-end job (or worse) for the rest of your days. The fall of the Berlin Wall is years away; no one has even dreamed of it. Fleeing to the West is difficult, and it can get your accomplices put in prison. The oppression of freedom, of life itself, is almost palpable.
Stasi Captain Weisler is given a mission to do surveillance on a playwright, Dreyman, and his girlfriend Christa. Mostly because a Party bigwig wants Christa for himself. Weisler’s boss tells him to find something on Dreyman and eliminate him as a rival. Every room in Dreyman’s apartment is wired and the long hours of listening begin.
But Weisler doesn’t count on what he hears. Or more accurately, on how he will be personally affected by what he hears. A solemn man, almost dour, his facial expression barely changes from one scene to the next. Dressed always in grey, Weisler lives in a stark, utilitarian apartment. His life has very little of beauty and nothing of real love.
Listening in on Dreyman, his lover and his artist friends, Weisler is exposed to a world of beauty, music and poetry that he’d never imagined. Ruining Dreyman simply so this Party minister can have his girlfriend is a repugnant idea to Weisler; he is a true idealist.
Weisler changes. He begins to fudge in his surveillance reports and he ultimately makes a decision that saves Dreyman’s life, but costs Weisler his career. The note of hope — and gratitude — at the end of the movie will bring tears to your eyes.