Film Review #82: The Lives of Others/ The Decomposition of the Soul
Director: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck/ Nina Toussaint & Massimo Iannetta
Cast: Ulrich Mühe, Sebastian Koch, Martina Gedeck/ Sigrid Paul, Harmut Richter
The first time that playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) has his flat searched by the Stasi, the East German state police, one officer discovers and holds up a volume of Brecht’s writings in silent accusation. Dreyman replies evenly, with a little sigh and smile, “It was given to me by Margaret Honecker.” Margaret Honecker was wife of Erich Honecker, the Communist Party boss of the harshly repressive German Democratic Republic in 1984. Remember this detail for a moment.
The bulk of first-time director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s The Lives of Others, set in East Berlin, takes place in that year, five years before Glasnost and the fall of the Berlin Wall. A two-part epilogue brings us to 1991, with Germany reunited. The film traces the transformation of a Stasi officer, Captain Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe), one of the GDR’s star prison interrogators, when he is assigned to spy on Dreyman and is thereby exposed to the art and intimacy of the playwright’s private life. In the epilogue, Dreyman, now able to read his Stasi files, discovers the scope of the Stasi agent’s actions, including those meriting unexpected acknowledgement, and he performs an act of gratitude that is fittingly artistic.
The Lives of Others turns first on an aesthetic dilemma and Donnersmarck says he simply used the Stasi’s role in the GDR as a setting to explore that. But the film’s release here – following huge European audiences and many awards, even after initial skittish rejection by the Berlin Film Festival – has propitious timing. Last November former Stasi foreign intelligence director Markus Wolf died, 17 years to the day after the Berlin Wall fell. Later that month, German legislators voted to extend a law requiring investigation for possible Stasi links of Germans applying for senior public service jobs but considerably narrowed the law’s coverage. This film comes during a period when Germany struggles with uncovering the GDR’s Communist past, for which there is some nostalgia.
The aesthetic dilemma Donnersmarck used was Lenin’s complaint to the writer Maxim Gorky that he could no longer listen to Beethoven’s Appassionata Sonata (his favorite music) because it aroused a tenderness and empathy that interfered with his revolutionary aims – it made him want to “stroke” heads instead of “smash” them. Indeed, a character in the film relates this anecdote. In forcing his Stasi officer to absorb the softening influence of art, Donnersmarck also gives Wiesler a surveillance subject with whom he is well-matched. The Lives of Others is actually the story of two men who grow into dissent and the woman who acts as a pivot for their undoing along with her own. Dreyman’s leading lady, Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck), is also his live-in girlfriend.
Back to Dreyman’s statement about Margaret Honecker, intended to preempt the Stasi. Importantly, when this film opens, he is neither a dissident artist nor entirely likable. He routinely moves in elite circles where Honecker’s wife might present him with books considered seditious in other people’s hands. That little sigh before the name-drop – pure early, know-it-all Al Gore. Yet, neither Dreyman nor Captain Wiesler is corrupt or hypocritical. Each believes in the regime. Each has made accommodations that allow him to do work he is good at. Each works conscientiously, fastidiously even. Each has the demeanor of the entitled yet is radically separated. In this they are naïve, men who are not yet good.
The film echoes Lenin’s dilemma with another piano sonata. When Dreyman learns of a respected dissident colleague’s suicide, he turns to his piano and plays Sonata for a Good Man (part of Gabriel Yared’s wonderfully effective score). This music cracks open a fissure inside Wiesler, who is listening through headphones in the attic. He has already stolen Dreyman’s Brecht volume so he can read it himself – he’s hardly on Margaret Honecker’s gift list – and he already appreciates Christa-Maria Sieland’s stage artistry and her secret turmoil.
Part of this film’s great power is that art is never immutable, never the predetermined winner in this struggle for souls. Dreyman must be shaken from a kind of cocoon that art can become. His colleague’s suicide provokes Dreyman. He contacts other dissidents – they have awaited his awakening – and undertakes political writing to be smuggled to the West. Christa-Maria, high-strung, unsure of her own talent, easily over-run, undoes them both. After a rapacious party minister in a black limo picks her over and Dreyman’s reassurances stop working, she becomes Wiesler’s target in an interrogation room, and gives Dreyman up.
The music having done its work, Wiesler’s most electric connections occur with the actress. One night he overhears Dreyman comfort the anxious Sieland, and he later impulsively approaches her in a bar, uttering, almost verbatim, the words Dreyman spoke about her gifts as an artist. Once they meet inside the interrogation cell, Wiesler half-pleads with her to "remember your public.” Behind the one-way mirror, Wiesler’s boss snorts incredulously, “Her public! What strange ideas he has!”
This film also comes to the US along with a 2003 Belgian documentary about the Stasi’s chief prison and interrogation center, the Berlin-Hohenschönhausen. If you see The Decomposition of the Soul, as I did, before you see The Lives of Others, you will sit up with a jolt as Donnersmarck’s characters walk down real hallways in that prison, for you know with a surge up the back of your neck what’s coming for them.
During a National Public Radio interview, Donnersmarck told David Davies that Wiesler’s assignment to spy on Dreyman’s flat makes him a novice out of his depth. Wiesler had engaged people extracted from their lives, forced to sit on their hands during marathon sessions so they could not even gesture as they spoke. This aptly distinguishes the difference between the two films. As expansive, imaginative and majestic as The Lives of Others is, The Decomposition of the Soul is cramped and brooding.
The guidelines for Hohenschönhausen staff, quoted at some length in the documentary, lay out systematic procedures that aim to “decompose” subjects. The 82-minute film was shot in 2002 with support from ARTE, the French-German television collaborative. The film’s title and much of the explanatory text come from a book by ex-prisoner Jürgen Fuchs. Framed with images of a tree branch outside the prison – first denuded in wintry bluster and ending with a green-budded sunniness bespeaking a new hopeful national morning – Decomposition focuses on two ex-prisoners, Sigrid Paul and Harmut Richter. Toussaint and Iannetta visually recreate arrest and confinement during the 1960s, with voice-overs, alternating footage of the two conducting facility tours for the viewer. Paul and Richter actually do this job in the present-day museum that part of the prison has become.
The New Yorker’s Anthony Lane says that if there is any justice, The Lives of Others will take best foreign picture Oscar, a view I share. Such justice should include a DVD edition that carries both films.
This review appeared in Stylusmagazine.com on 2/9/07. The Decomposition of the Soul screens for one week at Film Forum in New York City, February 7-13. The Lives of Others opens in New York City & Los Angeles on February 9, & also at the Jacob Burns Film Center in Westchester County, New York.