I must say, The Lives of Others is a tremendous mastery of craftsmanship, a full 3-course meal, satisfying on all levels. Written and directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, it’s the story of Hauptmann Gerd Weisler (played by Ulrich Mühe who passed away last July, sadly). In 1984, Weisler was a rather scary Stasi Officer, a scary interrogator, a scary lecturer on the art of interrogations, and he’s also the dutiful, yet very scary, enforcer of the East German thought police. We hate him and he’s the protagonist, if you can believe that.
Weisler wants to (and he is also ordered to) eavesdrop on a renowned German playwright by the name of Georg Dreyman who is “devoted and loyal to the government.” I liked how Ebert wrote,
“How can that be? Wiesler wonders. Dreyman is good-looking, successful, with a beautiful lover; he must be getting away with something. Driven by suspicion, or perhaps by envy or simple curiosity, Wiesler has Dreyman's flat wired and begins an official eavesdropping inquiry. He doesn't find a shred of evidence that Dreyman is disloyal. Not even in whispers. Not even in guarded allusions. Not even during pillow talk. The man obviously believes in the East German version of socialism, and the implication is that not even the Stasi can believe that. They are looking for dissent and subversion because, in a way, they think a man like Dreyman should be guilty of them. Perhaps they do not believe in East Germany themselves, but have simply chosen to play for the winning team.”
We learn that all is not as it seems and this isn’t simply about Wiesler’s perverse suspicions. A government bigwig, Minister Hempf, has a thing for Dreyman’s girlfriend, Christa-Maria Sieland, who must at times comply with Hempf’s disgusting advances at the risk of imprisonment, banishment, or humiliation. Thus, Hempf wants dirt on his romantic rival. Wiesler’s boss, Colonel Grubitz, the closest thing Wiesler has to a “friend,” is happy to advance his own career by going along with the corrupt whims of Minister Hempf. And Wiesler is asked to lie, to behave falsely, to ruin a good man, in order to prove his own loyalty.
But we learn that even Weisler is not as he seems. He is only doing his duty because he has no other choice. How is a good man to act in an environment that squashes any possibility for moral behavior? Well, we learn through Weisler’s actions and the enormous decisions he makes throughout Act II that he is, in fact, a good man whose heart can be moved, and he is quite capable of making moral decisions that will have a lasting impact on the lives of all these characters, especially himself. We first hate him, then we’re intrigued and fascinated by him, and in the end we admire him for what he did. Is there anything wrong with this approach in the protag’s arc? Not one damn bit. And yet, the gurus and pro readers and men like Robert McKee drill into screenwriters that all protagonists must be sympathetic and/or empathetic from the very beginning. No, they don’t. Weisler earned our love and sympathy in the end and isn’t that when it really counts?
By the way, I loved what A.O. Scott wrote:
“It is not inaccurate to describe ‘The Lives of Others’ as the story of how both men become disillusioned and hasten each other’s disillusionment. But the paradoxes inherent in this story — which are central to Mr. von Donnersmarck’s brilliant exposition of the Orwellian logic of East German Communism — are worth pausing over. It is not simply that Wiesler, the state-sanctioned, clandestine predator, develops a measure of sympathy for his quarry as he listens in on Georg’s private, unguarded moments (“presumably they have intercourse,” he types in his daily report after eavesdropping on Georg’s birthday party). Surely his training would have inoculated him against this kind of reverse Stockholm syndrome.
“Rather, even as Georg is driven toward actions that implicate him, for the first time, in dissident activity, Wiesler becomes convinced of Georg’s essential innocence and takes steps to protect him. The plot, as it acquires the breathless momentum of a thriller, also takes on the outlines of a dark joke. The poet and the secret policeman — both writers, in their differing fashions — may be the only two true patriots in the whole G.D.R.; in other words, the only people who take the Republic’s stated ideals at face value. But since the nation itself functions by means of the wholesale and systematic betrayal of those ideals, the only way Wiesler and Georg can express their loyalty is by committing treason.”