Thursday, February 7, 2019

A Few Good Men - The State, Secrecy, and One Man's Quest to Do the Right Thing

The Lives of Others is a Subtle, Sincere Drama About Life Behind The Wall

Captain Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe) observes Stage Actress Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck) from afar in a depressing DDR-era watering hole somewhere in East Berlin.

I recently finished re-watching the excellent 2006 Thriller Das Leben der Anderen for a second time. The award winning film, both written and directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, both pulls at the Heart, while at the same time being a cautionary tale about the dangers of Dictatorship - in any form.

The movie is set in East Berlin during November 1984. During that time Die Deutsche Demokratische Republik (German Democratic Republic) would still be around for another few years. In service of high minded ideals Neighbor spied on Neighbor, and children turned in their parents. Nobody felt safe to voice their true opinions lest the Ministry for State Security, known colloquially as the Stasi, come calling. An Eye was always watching, and an Ear always listening.

Berlin itself was the central point for Cold War tensions between Russia and the United States. Rather than fight a war of mutually assured destruction, the two enemy powers fought proxy wars, used propaganda, and of course eyes on the ground in the form of Spies.

The DDR's spying on its' own citizens concerns the plot of Das Leben der Anderen. Successful Playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) and his Actress girlfriend Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck) become the Stasi's targets, subject to a wiretapped apartment and 24/7 surveillance. Minister of Culture Bruno Hempf (Thomas Thieme) wants Koch imprisoned so he can have Christa-Maria to himself.

Of course, even in the DDR one couldn't be imprisoned without cause. Enter Captain Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe) and his team of spooks. With piercing German eyes and a Poker-face demeanor, Wiesler is introduced to us as a bloodless enforcer of the State's will. In an opening scene he is shown in flashback interrogating a man to the point of exhaustion and tears in order to extract the information he wants. This interrogation is then used to teach a class of Stasi Officers to be the finer points of how to extract a confession. 

Once Captain Wiesler and his team successfully plant listening devices throughout Georg Dreyman's apartment, he takes position in the Attic above, listening in on the lives of others.

There are several scenes throughout the film that pointedly touch on the choice Captain Wiesler must make. Is he truly acting as the Communist Party's 'Sword and Shield' by doing the bidding of Minister Bruno Hempf - a man with less than honorable motives?

Perhaps most striking for me is the scene pictured at the beginning of this entry. Captain Wiesler has finished his shift and gone to a depressing East German watering hole to drink Vodka. By chance, Christa-Maria enters the bar, her eyes hidden by large, dark sunglasses. She orders a Cognac. Wiesler knows she is wrestling with a tough decision.

Does she continue an affair with Minister Bruno Hempf, a man she finds repulsive, to save her (and Georg's) careers? Or does she return to Georg secure in the belief that she is a formidable Artist in her own right - with or without the State's support?

After approaching Christa-Maria and breaking the Ice, she lets her guard down with Wiesler. She asks him, "(would someone) sell herself for her Art?" Wiesler responds: "Sich für Kunst verkaufen? Das wäre ein schlecht Verkauf. Du bist ein sehr großer Künstlerin." (Sell yourself for Art? That would be a bad deal. You are already a great Artist).

Captain Wiesler's intervention helps Christa-Maria make a decision. A decision that is not without consequences.

And what of Captain Wiesler himself?

We are afforded glimpses into his private life a couple times during Das Leben der Anderen's 137 minute running time. Coming home, alone, he makes some horrible looking Rice dish with Ketchup squeezed from a Toothpaste tube. He then proceeds to eat his dinner, alone, while watching a DDR approved News program.

In one scene Wiesler hires a Prostitute. His hunger for basic human contact is obvious; it's a very hard scene to watch. Of course he receives some of that contact - but only as much as he paid for. As she leaves, the Prostitute's parting line is: "Book me for longer next time. Bye." The robotic, by-the-book Stasi man Captain Wiesler is not; he's as Human as the rest of us.

The movie's plot builds to a choice. Will Captain Wiesler find a way to imprison Georg Dreyman - thus furthering his own career and that of his immediate superior? Or is he motivated by a more human impulse to protect Dreyman from the State?

I highly recommend Das Leben der Anderen. It has so much to say about love, human nature, and the tough choices we all face in life. If you have someone special in your life, don't watch this movie alone.

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