In considering the outstanding performance of Ulrich Muhe in “The Lives of Others,” I’m reminded of Helen Mirren in “The Queen.” Both play characters defined by their stone-faced emotionlessness, and yet we come away knowing so much about their thoughts and feelings anyway. Anyone can make an impression by crying or yelling; it takes enormous skill to convey so much with so little.
Muhe, who died at 54 just as “The Lives of Others” was becoming an international success, is the star of this multi-layered and surprisingly touching dramatic thriller, the winner of the 2007 Academy Award for best foreign-language film. He plays Wiesler, an East German secret police agent in the mid-1980s, an expert interrogator and wiretapper and a man wholeheartedly devoted to his work. The top button of his shirt is always buttoned, even when he is not wearing a necktie, even when he is having sex. He has sex once in the film, with a prostitute, and his primary concern afterward is that she will be late for her next appointment. Punctuality is a big thing with him.
Wiesler is perhaps what you would expect from an East German Stasi man: cold, stoic, and humorless. He is loyal to his government and believes in the system. His old friend and former schoolmate Grubitz (Ulrich Tukur) sees it all as just a job, and he treats his duties somewhat lightly. When an underling tells a joke in the employee commissary about a government official, Grubitz laughs. The look on Wiesler’s face — disappointment in Grubitz, disdain for the joke-teller — says it all.
Wiesler is in many ways the opposite of the man he is now spying on, a playwright named Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch). Dreyman is sensitive and artistic, occasionally a rabble-rouser and known to be a friend of theater director Albert Jerska (Volkmar Kleinart), whose criticisms of East Germany have gotten him banned from his profession. Wiesler is assigned by his supervisor, Hempf (Thomas Thieme), to wiretap Dreyman’s home, urged to find any evidence, no matter how small, that Dreyman is a dissident. He’s somewhat disillusioned to discover that the actual reason Hempf wants Dreyman exposed is that Hempf is having an affair with Dreyman’s girlfriend and wants him out of the way.
The girlfriend is Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck), a beautiful and talented stage actress. Wiesler views her and Dreyman haughtily at first, nothing more than misbehaving subjects whose deeds it is his duty to report. Soon he is playing God, manipulating events so that Dreyman will learn of Christa’s infidelity. It’s the punishment these weak fools deserve.
But soon after that, he begins to change, subtly and by degrees. Hours of listening to the goings-on at Dreyman and Christa’s apartment have exposed him to beautiful music, to exciting art, and to ideas he had not considered before. He begins to come to life.
He also becomes privy to information about Dreyman’s plans, which are radical and forbidden. Yet Wiesler no longer automatically believes that they are wrong. What’s “right” and “wrong” in an authoritarian system like this? And where’s the line between courage and stupidity, between acting bravely and acting foolishly, when the government’s unforgiving harshness is supposed to go unquestioned? In short, how can Wiesler — how can anyone — continue to live like this?
Written and directed with extraordinary compassion and proficiency by first-time feature filmmaker Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, “The Lives of Others” spends a good deal of time with Dreyman and Christa, both conflicted about their actions, both in love in an environment that places little value on emotions. They are the “others” whose lives are referred to in the title, and it’s easy to see how Wiesler could become so entangled with them. It is also easy to become caught up in the tension created by their secret actions, and the director smartly plays up the suspense without overdoing it.
But the movie is chiefly about Wiesler’s gradual transformation from automaton to human being. This change is conveyed expertly by Muhe, who can speak volumes with just a slight raise of the eyebrow here or a hint of a half-smile there. Histrionics aren’t needed when an actor can show you so much with understatement. Wiesler starts as an unlikable (but fascinating) villain; by the time the film reaches its gently poignant and uplifting resolution, you may be surprised at how much you love him — and how much he has demonstrated his worthiness of love.
A- (2 hrs., 6 min.; German with subtitles; )