The grass, we are told, is always greener somewhere else; a less philosophical slant to that old adage summed up most concisely by this French poet in the phrase la vie est ailleurs. Yes, in a way, life is always elsewhere. When we choose to live in one city, love one woman, read one book, befriend one colleague, we necessarily forsake all other cities, women, books, and colleagues, at least for some period of time. There are many among us who do not have broad selections in these categories; many more privileged persons can only lament their destinies and look upon the choices of others with the greenest of eyes (the coincidence of color is striking). The higher we get on the totem pole of privilege and ease, the more likely we are to second-guess what we have made of our allotments – such is the luxury of having too much time and too many competing brands and alternatives. Not so in most countries of the world. Despite our amazing industrial advances in the last hundred years, most countries are still limited in what they can offer their citizens, both commercially and socially. Most people still marry partners from the same region in which they were born; most people, in fact, do not spend appreciable amounts of time far from that selfsame region. This rule of thumb used to apply to Europe, albeit less so, before the advent of the European Community, which has been slackening controls on labor mobility little by little. Now a forty-year-old computer programmer from Kaunas can pack up his things and move to Paris with nary a thought about visas, permits, and other obstacles of immigration – and for that reason alone, he will be less likely to immigrate. Less likely because regardless of his degree of Gallicization, he will ultimately miss home, the home that he was not really allowed to leave for at least half of his life, and those memories, however austere, will propel him back to the cultural milieu in which he feels most comfortable. But what if the culture of both countries were once identical? What if there were two realities, the open, liberal, creative culture you had always known, and another reality – directed, Spartan, ruthless – a mockery of the first culture aimed at some untenable goal in some unthinkable future? Such is the conundrum of the protagonist of this glorious film.
The original German title would translate as The Life of Others, suggesting a Boschian gaze on the entirety of alternatives to your own existence. But in the plural, we get the sense of tangible life, of individual fate and collective oppression. Our hero, if we can call him that, is Gerd Wiesler (the late Ulrich Mühe), a career Stasi officer who is so regimented as to be unable to enjoy any of life's details except the precision of his routine. Were Wiesler's face a true reflection of his soul, we would be worried that his body might contain nothing more than rotting bones and flesh. His assignment as one of East Germany's most devoted agents is to sit patiently and collect incriminating information on anyone who could possibly betray the socialist cause. I suppose the bulk of intelligence legwork involves trials of patience; but when you factor in stereotypical German thoroughness and diligence you have quite a project. Wiesler's current quarry is playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch), who embodies that most feared enemy of totalitarian regimes, the artistic intellectual. Dreyman's résumé includes a series of successful publications and a coveted actress, Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck), as his girlfriend. Still, something is missing in Georg's life. His creative potential has not been fully achieved, although these thoughts plague any artist of merit from adolescence to the grave, and Dreyman is said to have started looking to the emerald fields of his Western confederates for inspiration. West Germany's economic renaissance was one of the more extraordinary turnarounds in modern history and the details of its resurgence, despite efforts to gag the actual figures, were well-known to citizens of East Germany. In lieu of speaking out against the regime, which would spell an end to his burgeoning career, Dreyman tries to enjoy his status as a semi-celebrity with witticisms and hints at the power and value of artistic expression regardless of the politics of one's country. Dreyman is an East German citizen, but his lineage is to German artists of all times.
These ingredients sound like a plausible defection case to Wiesler, who has little appreciation for the arts since they tend to entail rather impractical matters. He will watch some television now and then, in between sessions with paid escorts, but his mind is focused on the Darwinian struggle to survive and protect – and in this respect, he is the fittest sort of predator. Dreyman's apartment is quickly tapped and Wiesler settles into his listening post at clockwork shifts with the facility of someone for whom spying comprises more muscle memory than thought. Wiesler reports to his superior (Ulrich Tukur) that he has yet to find any evidence incriminating Dreyman, but then again the Stasi could probably drum up something untoward against even an automaton like Wiesler. And here is where we suspect a twist will occur, and it most certainly does. Wiesler discovers a piece of information to which the audience has already been privy: that a filthy hog of a government official by the name of Hempf (Thomas Thieme) wants Christa-Maria all to his greasy self. Consequently, Dreyman must be found guilty of harboring pro-Western sympathies. Most drones in a police state of this caliber and unscrupulousness would emit a chuckle and carry out the order thinking lasciviously of their own past and future conquests. But not our Wiesler. Wiesler is, you see, the ideal Stasi member, completely incapable of contravening socialist concepts of equality and fair play even in favor of some bloated cadre's lusty whims. Since tales like these either have characters who never change and slowly become symbols for whatever ideals they cherish, or feature an unexpected change in a person captive to antiquated missions, we sense that Wiesler will do something dramatic. Could Wiesler even regain the soul he forsook years ago when he bought into the artificial brotherhood of man based on its least impressive commonality, money? What could he, a mid-range officer with little pull apart from local operations hope to achieve against Hempf, the epitome of all totalitarian regimes at all times, a man gorged on money, power, and, from the looks of it, an ungodly amount of Bratwurst?
What Wiesler does and, specifically, what he doesn't do, will not be revealed here. The viewer who craves a happy ending may take solace in the fact that the two Germanies reunified into the Mecca of culture and artistic genius for which they were once exclusively known. This same viewer may be informed in his readings about the film that there never was a Wiesler, or a Dreyman, or an actress as enchanting as Christa-Maria Sieland, and that these bare facts reduce the validity of such an enterprise, reserving it for pure fiction, which as we all know has little to do with reality. But in essence, Wiesler, Dreyman, and Sieland all existed in exactly the form you see on the screen; their thoughts, concerns and hopes were all the same; only their actions and fates may not have been accurately portrayed. Maybe one day a file will surface from the bottomless trench that was East Germany's database in which all three of these characters will be clearly alive, Wiesler perhaps under his code name HGW – Hauptmann (Captain) Gerd Wiesler – XX/ 7; maybe Dreyman will indeed have a copy of a Sonata of a Good Man; perhaps Sieland will be allowed to be with whom she wants and not have to cheat death by cheating on her beloved. Until then, you can enjoy one of the most spectacular films in recent memory.