In the magnificent new German film The Lives of Others, someone notes that Stalin liked to call writers "engineers of the human soul." It was a stupid notion, as well as a malevolent one. Souls resist engineering, and writers -- at least those worth getting excited about -- work best as soul-stirrers. That's what the writer of this political thriller turns out to be, and, wonder of wonders, he's directed his own original script with all the flair and gravity it deserves. The film has already been nominated for an Oscar, and it's as good as contemporary cinema gets.
The filmmaker, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, has turned a bright light on a dark, squalid corner of the former East Germany -- the Stasi, or secret police, whose 100,000 employees, working with as many as 200,000 informants, sustained a reign of pervasive terror from 1950 until 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell. Rather than dwell on the darkness and squalor, though, he has fashioned a genuinely thrilling tale, leavened with sly humor, that works ingenious variations on the theme of cat and mouse, speaks to current concerns about personal privacy and illuminates the timeless conflict between totalitarianism and art.
The story begins in East Berlin, five years before the fall of the Wall, when the Stasi puts a celebrated playwright under intense surveillance. Georg Dreyman is suspected of nothing in particularl, but a cultural commissar has his own reasons for targeting him. so the full apparatus of official snoopery is brought to bear on the handsome writer and his equally prominent actress girlfriend, Christa -- bugging his apartment, tapping his phone, listening to what he says, day and night, and transcribing his conversations in minute detail.
The presiding snoop is a Stasi expert and true believer, Captain Wiesler -- he's played with chilling brilliance by Ulrich Mühe. Alone in his listening post, head encased in earphones, he monitors Dreyman and Christa with unswerving intensity. But then something strange starts to happen. The more deeply Wiesler enters the vibrant lives of those others, the more his eavesdropping turns to empathy.
The Lives of Others is very much a filmmaker's film, with an outwardly somber tone -- gray buildings, stone faces, baleful light, a few shabby Trabis spewing tailpipe smoke on deserted streets. At the same time, the drama is full of life and closely connected to life, then and now.
Its most obvious relevance to our world is its depiction of state-sanctioned surveillance (just as its most obvious movie reference is to Francis Coppola's masterful The Conversation). We may see surveillance as a troubling necessity in a time of unprecedented danger, while struggling to set its proper limits. The Stasi saw spying as a natural way of life, and informers as a necessary good -- the human equivalent of pistachio shells used to pry other shells open.
The film's enduring value, though, lies in what it has to say about the power of art, and what it means to be human.
Artists baffle the Stasi thugs, and frighten them. The vast Stasi bureaucracy keeps track of every typewriter owned by every writer in the land, in case subversive literature should surface and need to be traced. The porcine culture minister Hempf, scorns the playwright Georg Dreyman with a special passion. "That's what we all love about your plays," Hempf tells him condescendingly. "Your love for humanity, your belief that people can change. No matter how often you say it in your plays, people do not change."
But one person changes quite miraculously in The Lives of Others. It's a life-changing movie.