By Kelly FitzGerald
Winner of the 2007 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s The Lives of Others (2006) impresses on many fronts. Painting an honest portrayal of raw human compassion, viewers witness the transformation of an emotionless Stasi Captain, Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe), into a man capable of sympathizing with the subject of his self-motivated investigation.
Introduced as a cold-blooded interrogator, Wiesler’s distinguishably militant demeanor is mirrored through the mundanity of his wardrobe, dominated by shades of gray, clean lines and the occasional spy accessory (namely headphones). Everything about him is painfully calculated, from his thought process to the way he walks. His capacity for human emotion appears non-existent as he instructs aspiring Stasi officers on methods of interrogation, distrustful of a student who displays a glimmer of compassion. Like his code name which is reduced to a series of letters and numbers (HGW XX/7), Wiesler’s character forces audiences to question what makes a human being more than just a name or a cog in a machine.
Sebastian Koch’s character, Georg Dreyman, offers a possible answer to this question. An East German playwright whose works are also read in the west, Dreyman acts as a foil to Wiesler through his marriage to the arts and human well-being. Emotionally motivated after learning about the suicide of blacklisted friend and theater director, Albert Jerska (Volkmar Kleinert), Dreyman chooses to join a movement in revealing East German oppression as influenced by the DDR. While this strand is essential in driving von Donnersmarck’s compelling narrative, Dreyman is more of a moral coach in what is truly Wiesler’s story. Though the two are never on screen at the same time, Dreyman transmits hope and compassion across the socialist synapse which, for Wiesler, is the barrier between a life of discipline and one of fulfillment.
Perhaps the unofficial title for von Donnersmarck’s film should be Sonata for a Good Man, the name of the song that Jerska gifts to Dreyman before his suicide, also the title of Dreyman’s book. As stated in a review by The New York Times, Mr. von Donnersmarck’s film is “haunted” by the notes of this song, which Dreyman plays as a tribute to his deceased friend. Listening through the wires of his bugged apartment, Wiesler is moved to tears as he builds a connection to Dreyman through the language of music—a language that ascends letters and numbers. Just moments later Dreyman poses the most memorable question of the film, “can anyone who has heard this music, I mean truly heard it, really be a bad person?” As evidenced by the softening of what once appeared a stone-carved face, Wiesler’s tears provide an answer to Dreyman’s question: anyone who has truly heard the music is not really “a bad person.”
Mr. von Donnersmarck’s heartwarming narrative can be extended to the greater social workings of Germany circa 1984, inviting viewers to entertain the possibility that not all socialists were bad people—and if they were, that there was still a seed of goodness planted within their hearts. In The Lives of Others, art transcends political structures because it is a basic element of the human condition—it’s fruits dependent on that which is incalculable.