A s Gerd Wiesler, a masterful interrogator in the East German secret police (the “Stasi”) and the fulcrum of the fraught melodrama The Lives of Others, Ulrich Mühe gives a marvelously self-contained performance. There isn’t an ounce of fat on his body, or in his acting: He has pared himself down to a pair of eyes that prowl the faces of his character’s countrymen for signs of arrogance—i.e., of independent thinking. But if Wiesler has shed all traces of nonessential humanity, he has just enough empathy to burrow into his prisoners’ heads and reduce them, over time, to cringing wrecks. Belief in the mission of the German Democratic Republic—and the resourcefulness of its enemies—keeps him patient and centered in his labors. It hardly seems to matter that his most intimate exchanges are with the people whose lives he destroys. Until now.
The first film by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, The Lives of Others is a cunning piece of construction—a Kafkaesque tearjerker, a tragic farce. Set in the mid-eighties, before Gorby and glasnost, the movie centers on Wiesler’s surveillance of a pair of national celebrities, the playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch)—the only “nonsubversive [GDR] writer still read in the West,” we’re told—and his actress girlfriend, Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck). It’s Wiesler who proposes that surveillance—he doesn’t like Dreyman’s haughty expression at the opening of his latest play. But when this loyal Stasi officer discovers that the operation was fast-tracked because the odious minister of Culture (Thomas Thieme) wants sole possession of the comely Christa-Maria, his moral compass begins to wander. As he eavesdrops in the dark attic above the couple’s apartment, he’s slowly drawn out of himself and into the lives of others.
Movies can appeal to our best and worst instincts—it’s when they appeal to both at once that they get really interesting. We fear for the freedom of the vulnerable couple, yet on some level it’s a kick to spy on them along with Wiesler—to listen in on mundane conversations in a culture in which there’s no sphere of privacy, and to think, What stray complaint can be used as proof of disloyalty? There are so many from which to choose! We root for Wiesler’s conscience to thaw, yet the movie’s cruelest irony is that whenever he manages to do something decent, it always rebounds on the people he seeks to protect. In a system that perverts the most ordinary interactions, few good deeds go unpunished.
Christa-Maria is dealt the worst hand: Her stage career could end abruptly if she doesn’t put out for the cultural commissar. Gedeck, the winsome star of Mostly Martha, takes the actress’s indecisiveness to operatic heights—but does her defiler have to be this repulsive? When she allows him to paw her in a limo, the scene is like something out of a Victorian melodrama. (The director could have suggested that power has its attractions: How else to account for all the women that Henry Kissinger got?)
T he longish denouement of The Lives of Others takes place years after the main action and is clearly designed to soften the blow. It’s corny and contrived, but we seize on it with relief—as we seize on the Mahleresque romanticism of Gabriel Yared’s score. A harsher landing is provided by the documentary The Decomposition of the Soul, which plays from February 7 to 13 at Film Forum. Directed by Nina Toussaint and Massimo Iannetta, it’s a hushed, poetic meditation on the life of Stasi prisoners in which two former inmates, Hartmut Richter and Sigrid Paul, traipse in and out of empty cells and interrogation rooms in the Berlin-Hohenschonhausen, which operated from 1951 until the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. As they softly relay their stories—of sleep and sensory deprivation, of the interrogators’ sadistic tricks, of the dangling of false hope, the camera fastens on stools, desks, and other ordinary objects. We fix on them the way the prisoners must have, grasping for solidity in a fast-dissolving world.
“The decomposition of the soul” is the goal of a Stasi incarceration, the promised end for an enemy of the state, and there is something about the movie’s pacing—the silences, the drone of the narration (“The name of your enemy is hope … ”)—that wears you down. Sigrid Paul remembers how she found a loose thread and spent hours twisting it into different shapes—until the guards burst in, took it away, and took her mattress away for good measure. How brilliant of the Stasi to give new meaning to the phrase “hanging by a thread.”
S omeone had peed on the floor of the small Times Square auditorium at the only critics’ screening of Factory Girl, which had some audience members speculating on whether this was (a) an advance review of the movie or (b) an attempt to transport us back to the Deuce in the age of Andy Warhol’s Factory. A powerful antibacterial agent took care of the theater’s smell, but not the film’s.