A Review of The Lives of Others

I don’t know why certain people, like Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro, have been endlessly romanticized for their style of government. It is not for “the people” – it is for themselves. No rights are upheld – all are sacrificed for the” good” of the state. But such things are hard to discuss. The ideas of oppressive regimes and the like seem like they are confined to history books. In fact, the idea of a secret police pretty much only exists in Bond films and conspiracy theories.

Yet real they were, and this film helps people understand them. And yet the film is not meant to be black or white. It does not try to belabor the point that the secret police are bad – these were men just doing their job, after all, rather than subhuman monsters. Rather, it is trying to understand just how society allows such a thing to happen.

The film takes place in East Germany, 1984. A police captain named Weisler is assigned to spy on a playwright named Dreyman. He bugs the house and listens in on his life, finding out about the relationship with Dreyman’s live in girlfriend Christa-Maria. However, Weisler’s superior apparently wants Christa for himself and has given Weisler the assignment based on his desires. This, combined with the suicide of a friend and the fall out from an article about the suicide rates in Germany, makes Weisler very disillusioned about the Communist Party and the role he serves in society.

What’s incredible is how close this film is to the present. It does not exist in what many people think of as the “1980s.” Rather, it seems to take much further in the past. Maybe this was the way for filmmakers to explain how much, or maybe explain how far behind the Communist bloc was from the rest of the film. Everything has this very antiquated look, as though society and progress came to a halt after WWII.

Which, frankly, I suppose it did.

But there is a much larger theme in the film – about how human nature simply will not allow such a cold, mechanistic society to function. None of the people in the film are evil. There are no super villains on display, no one who acts evil. They act exactly as the secret police would act – as human beings doing a job.

This tone accomplishes two things. For one, it prevents the film from being a political statement. Yes, the film is definitely against the communist bloc, but it is not confrontational about it. I appreciate a film that does not try to be confrontational and moralistic about any point of view, even if it is a point of view I happen to agree with. But The Lives of Others is not.

Each of the performers make their characters undeniably human. It is not even through what they say, but through their movements and their facial expression. Each of the characters carries themselves as though a giant boulder is on their shoulders. Perhaps it was – they could not experience all of life while being under anyone’s eye.

So, does this mean that the film is merely trying to explain what happened and how it is good that we, as a society, have grown past wanting this sort of force? Not at all. It is a call for clarity, about how anyone can participate in this sort of system and make it work.

I know there is a desire to continuously try to put human faces onto certain forces. It is believed that putting items into the hands of the “right” people. But it is incredible how that can all go wrong. And that is why this film is an important one. People should not forget what other people are capable of doing to their fellow man.

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