Monday, March 9, 2015

Classics: A Review of The Lives of Others By Lauren Ennis

Early in our lives we are taught how to protect ourselves. As children at school we learn to avoid strangers lock our doors, and look both ways before crossing the street. As valuable as these lessons are, however, they do little to protect what is perhaps our most valuable possession; our privacy; In a world in which our personal information is available with the click of a mouse and nearly every form of communication has been revealed to be subject to government surveillance the question remains; how much of our lives are solely our own? The 2006 political thriller The Lives of Others explores how citizens of the former German Democratic Republic of East Germany grappled with that same question while maneuvering through the intrigues of daily life under the ever-watchful eyes of the secret police.
Nothing escapes the notice of 1980's super computers!

The story begins as Stasi officer and college professor Gerd Weisler (Ulrich Muhe) teaches a class about the ways to interrogate a suspect. In the lecture, he chillingly reveals the methods that the Stasi uses to manipulate and coerce suspected "enemies of the state" until they finally break down and confess. Although the recruits are skeptical of the Stasi's much touted ability to determine true confessions from false ones, Weisel remains fully confident in his expert judgment, as does his colleague Anton Grubitz (Ulrich Tukur), who approaches him after class with a specially ordered surveillance assignment. The assignment, collecting information on supposedly loyal playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch), at first intrigues Weisel, who is excited by the challenge. As the assignment carries on, however, Weisel's once iron-clad faith in the GDR is shattered when he learns that the assignment is really a means with which prominent party member Minister Hempf (Thomas Thieme) hopes to eliminate Dreyman in order to pursue Dreyman's live-in girlfriend, actress Christa-Maria Seiland (Martina Gedeck). With each new revelation of the true nature of the Stasi's surveillance, Weisel becomes convinced that the only way to maintain the ideals he has devoted his life to is to sabotage the efforts of the very establishment that he once believed personified them.

Although The Lives of Others is a period piece, the same dilemmas that the characterss face in the 1984 GDR remain timely and relevant thirty years later. The film's central conflicts are Dreyman's  moral need to take action despite the repercussions he will face if he is caught, and Weisel's desire to help Dreyman even though doing so would mean risking his position and freedom. Although the crises of conscience that both men face could easily stand in for a myriad of moral dilemmas, these conflicts are particularly resonant in the wake of the United States' NSA Scandal. In that political scandal, National Security Agency employee Edward Snowden was hired to collect information about average citizens across the U.S. through surveillance of citizens' online and telephone activity. After witnessing the repeated violations of citizens' constitutional rights, Snowden reportedly reached a point at which he could no longer remain silent. In a maneuver that dominated international headlines, he went on to publicly expose the NSA for intercepting the communications of private citizens and political leaders from across the globe. Although he was hailed as a hero by many, there were just as many who viewed him as a traitor, including the United States' government, whose threat of prosecution lead him to flee to Russia. Both Weisel and Snowden were ultimately forced to give up what they held most dear for the crime of trying to protect the right to keep one's private life private. Though one is a recent reality and the other is historical fiction, both examples present us as individuals with the fundamental question of what we would do if we found ourselves in Snowden or Weisel's position. Days after watching this film, I am still pondering how much action I would be willing to take in such a situation and questioning just where the line is at which proactive national defense ends and blatant abuse of authority begins.
It's not as if we're interesting enough to listen in on...right?

The superb work of the film's cast transports viewers into the world of its characters regardless of any generational, language, or historical knowledge barriers that audiences might have. Ulrich Muhe is truly dynamic in his turn as Gerd Weisel, as he allows the audience to witness his character's transformation from idealistic but unknowing tool of the state to jaded vigilante. Similarly, Sebastian Koch holds his own in the equally complex role of conflicted playwright Georg Dreyman as he aptly portrays the ways in which people desperately cling to the world they know even when everything around them demands that they let go. Martina Gedeck excellently rounds out the central cast in her haunting performance as tormented actress Christa-Maria Seiland. Ulrich Tukur and Thomas Thieme also lend excellent support as Grubitz and Hempf, adding just the right amounts of entitlement, greed, sleaze, and menace to their roles as top Stasi officials.

The Lives of Others is truly an example of what a well made historical film should be. The story works equally well as a journey into the past and a dire warning for the future, all while maintaining a core of genuine emotion. The intelligent script by fist time screenwriter and director Florian Heckel von Donnersmarck and multi-faceted performances merge to tell a heart-wrenching tale of duty, love, betrayal, and sacrifice that is as powerful today as it would have been in the midst of the Cold War. For a glimpse into a 1984 that is even more chilling than anything George Orwell could write, look no further than The Lives of Others.

A man without a country

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