The Lives of Others, which won the Oscar for best foreign film on Sunday, opens by drawing back the curtain on a secret scene -- an interrogation performed by a member of the Stasi, the monstrously efficient East German secret police, in the mid-1980s. The film's inquisitor, Captain Gerd Wiesler, is almost a caricature of the totalitarian apparatchik -- bloodlessly precise, by turns sinister and seductive as the interrogation requires. The scene cuts back and forth between the actual interrogation and a Stasi college classroom, where Wiesler is playing an audio tape of the session to a group of eager students. Wiesler dissects the dialogue for their edification, as the exhausted suspect on the tape begins to repeat his testimony word for word before finally breaking and confessing. "A liar," explains Wiesler, stopping the tape, "has prepared statements."
It's a rote performance, in other words, and Wiesler is the harshest kind of critic. As dry as it is, Wiesler's observation touches on the way a play of fictions can reveal truths -- fitting for a film that uses theatrical artifice to such revealing effect.
Written and directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, The Lives of Others delights in the frisson of opposites -- the meld of high artificiality with psychological realism; the elegant dissonances in a piano composition called "Sonata for a Good Man," which serves as the film's haunting refrain; the two good men who serve as point and counterpoint in the film's fugal structure. Wiesler is one unlikely hero, and his counterpart is also his prey -- Georg Dreyman, a handsomely rumpled playwright suspected of dissent. Ordered to put Dreyman and his comely actress girlfriend, Christa-Maria Sieland, on 24-hour surveillance, Wiesler salts their apartment with hidden cameras and bugs, perches in the building's attic, and transcribes all happenings on a typewriter. Here the film rubs us with another uncomfortable paradox, twining our sympathies with our aroused curiosity. When the couple falls into a heated clinch, Wiesler types out that the pair "presumably have intercourse." The primness of the line, of course, fails to disguise the fact that he's a peeping Tom -- and we are, too.
The audience's complicity is in keeping with the Stasi's method. By the time the German Democratic Republic fell in 1989, more than one in 50 citizens were working as Stasi officers and informers. Stasi's motto was "to know everything" -- its clenched-butt obsession with order earns the film's mockery.
The Lives of Others is scornful of ideological truthiness and small-minded stopwatch accuracy -- the only knowledge worth seeking, the film seems to say, is revelation born of art. This is, perhaps, a self-congratulatory stance, and the film is littered with enough loud allusions to Brecht and Beethoven to make you feel like you're being buttered up for recognizing them. Wiesler chalks a map of the apartment onto the floor of his secret attic and blocks out his subjects' movements, then he grows obsessed with his subjects' lives and breaks the frame by approaching Sieland directly. Pretty soon this increasingly devoted "audience member" begins crafting his own fiction in his reports of the subjects' activities -- how dangerous, how Duchamp.
The Lives of Others would be too meta-clever to bear -- if it didn't work so damn well. The film invites us to peel an onion of artifice, even as it seduces with its emotional pull. Queasy humor sauces things up, and even though it has as many endings as a Beethoven work -- a death ex machina and narrative jumps galore -- the film manages to keep the emotional plumb-line clear. In a particularly fine performance, actor Ulrich Mühe conveys how Wiesler is less a monster who discovers his morality than an idealist shaken out of his ideology. Dreyman, too, is awakened from his complacency, as the film asks: How do these two men react when they have to go off script? How, in other words, can one be good in a very bad world?
Fortunately, the movie offers no easy answers. In a system as twisted as East Germany's, the best intentions are often perverted into tragedy. But redemption is not impossible, the film suggests -- it lies in the will to create something beyond rigid ideology and bureaucratic record-keeping, to carve out the sovereignty of one's own mind. And it lies in the empathy of the imagination, the ability to watch others' lives as if they were one's own. "I'm your audience," Wiesler says to Sieland. We are, too.
Noy Thrupkaew is a Prospect senior correspondent.
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