The Lives of Others
Produced by Bayerischer Rundfunk and Creado Film
Directed and written by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
Distributed by Sony Pictures Classics
Produced and distributed by Universal Pictures
Directed by Billy Ray
Screenplay by Adam Mazer and William Rotko
Anyone who wants to know what it is like to live in a police state should hasten to see The Lives of Others, the winner of this year’s Oscar for best foreign film, an unexpected recognition from the Academy’s usually purblind judges. This compellingly cold-eyed German film made by first-time director-writer Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck tells the story of an implacable agent in the infamous Stasi (the East German secret police) assigned to monitor a young thespian couple suspected of straying from the Marxist script. Becoming their unseen audience of one, he unexpectedly witnesses a personal drama that threatens his political convictions.
By 1984, the German Democratic Republic had brought George Orwell’s vision of the totalitarian state to still life. Figures vary, but most commentators agree that the Stasi employed 100,000 souls and commanded another 200,000 wretches as freelance informers, willing or not. This meant that there was a snoop for every 50 citizens in this workers’ paradise, each pledged to protect the people from being contaminated by Western shenanigans. Books, plays, art, and films were monitored, lest they spread anticommunist infections. Thought itself was suspect. In the course of one grueling interrogation, an agent warns his suspect against supposing Stasi methods inhumane. To entertain such a thought would be a crime against the state that could put him in prison indefinitely.
The genius of Donnersmarck’s film is that it tells its story through the eyes of the Stasi operative. We first meet him—Captain Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe)—as he is conducting a class in interrogation tactics, using a videotape of one of his, shall we say, subjects. On the tape, a young man repeatedly denies knowing anything about his neighbor’s attempt to flee to the West. Then, Wiesler stops the recording to observe dryly that, with each new round of questioning, the suspect tells his story with exactly the same words, a sure sign he has rehearsed his answers and is, therefore, guilty. The only rehearsals permitted in Wiesler’s world are those directed by the collective spirit of Marxism. Individual performances are verboten. His button eyes stare out from his frozen face, beholding a world he knows to be insufficiently orthodox. As a true believer, he is sleepless in his commitment to detect and denounce deviance from the party line. For all his ideological zealotry, however, his clothing suggests he harbors a vestigial individuality. He wears a colorless nylon windbreaker over a drab, gray suit. Since the windbreaker only reaches his waist, the suit jacket’s tails flutter beneath it as he strides purposefully to his assignments. From under his accepted straightjacket, his crimped humanity waves furtively, if a little ridiculously, at a chilled world. His next assignment begins to defrost this world.
The minister of culture orders Wiesler to spy on George Dreyman, a playwright thought to have strayed from the socialist path. Although his plays are outwardly as Marxist as Brecht’s, they seem a little too open to Western ideas. Setting himself up in an attic space over Dreyman’s spacious but cluttered apartment, Wiesler listens in on him and his girlfriend, Christa-Maria (Martina Gedeck). He’s disconcerted to discover that, despite Dreyman’s evident joi de vivre, he toes the Marxist line. Without surrendering his mind, Dreyman has managed to adapt to his political circumstances. Although many of his artist friends are embittered by the state’s interference with their work and their lives, Dreyman, by dint of his sunny, creative personality, accepts the scrutiny as a necessary phase in building what he trusts will become a healthy society. Then, his friend and former director commits suicide, shattering his comfortable accommodation with the thuggish state. The director had willfully burst the seams of his straightjacket, prompting the minister of culture to shut him out of the state-run theater. In his grief, Dreyman decides to take a stand, if only clandestinely. Doing some research, he discovers that the GDR ceased publishing reports of suicides as their number continued to rise sharply through the 70’s and into the 80’s—an odd oversight by a government ordinarily obsessed with demographics. But then the GDR wasn’t about to broadcast how many people preferred to absent themselves from communist felicity. This is Dreyman’s opportunity to avenge his friend’s death and make some amends for what he now sees as his timidity. He writes an essay inquiring into the GDR’s surprising silence on suicides and arranges to have it published anonymously by Der Spiegel in West Berlin. This, of course, is a breach of communist etiquette almost as egregious as Winston Smith’s decision to keep a diary in 1984.
Although Wiesler divines Dreyman’s intentions, he doesn’t rush to report him. He has taken a wholly uncharacteristic personal interest in Dreyman and Christa-Maria after learning the real reason he’s been asked to put them under surveillance. The minister of culture doesn’t care about Dreyman’s ideas; he is after Christa-Maria’s body and wants to remove his competitor for her affections by putting him in prison. Meanwhile, he has already intimidated the unstable Christa-Maria into yielding to his desires with a blend of threat and inducement. Not troubling himself with subtlety, he bluntly informs her that he can either advance or halt her career according to how she responds to him. Wiesler the zealot is so disgusted by this discovery that he toys with subverting his investigation.
Until this point, the film is a quietly devastating examination of how authorities so easily abuse their power under the cover of ideological necessity. (Sound familiar?) Then, the narrative becomes a somewhat formulaic cat-and-mouse game replete with slightly shopworn audience manipulation. But it’s all carried off with such Hitchcockian brio that you’re never prompted to question the film’s authenticity while watching it. In one improbable but dramatically necessary scene, Wiesler accidentally runs into Christa-Maria in a shabby café. They’re both there to numb themselves to the emotional impact of the same squalid prospect. The boorish minister has called Christa-Maria to a rendezvous, and Wies-ler, who has fallen in love with the couple at an investigatory distance, knows it. Discarding the code of his profession, he approaches her as a theater fan. He commends her for being so authentic on stage. Having been forced into deceiving Dreyman, she demurs. “Actors are never who they are,” she acidly observes.
Wiesler is well ahead of her and begs to differ. “I am your audience,” he tells her, implicitly claiming truer insight into her character. It’s an uncanny moment, and Mühe’s subtle acting gives Wiesler’s heretofore unexpressive face all the poignancy of his authentic concern. He is clearly trying to nudge her toward the confidence she needs to be herself and shun her tormentor.
Wiesler’s decision to risk coming out from behind his official veil will prove fateful for the couple and for himself. In the event, we realize Donnersmarck’s purpose. He has exploded once and for all an ugly, soul-destroying cliché: The personal need never be the political.
In Breach, Chris Cooper plays Robert Hanssen, the turncoat who spied for the Russians for the last 22 years of his tenure at the FBI. He does so with a subtlety comparable to Mühe’s, but his superlative acting serves a questionable narrative. Director Billy Ray and his writers, Adam Mazer and William Rotko, seem to have shaped their supposedly true-life story to serve a tendentious agenda.
As Winston Churchill said of Russia, Hanssen is “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” How could this Catholic family man, a daily communicant and supporter of Opus Dei, have betrayed his nation so coolly? How could he have betrayed his unsuspecting wife by posting highly embellished accounts of their sex life on websites and sharing videos of their intimacies with his closest friend? How could he have taken up with a crack-head stripper, buying her a Mercedes and escorting her on a jaunt to Hong Kong, all the while not having sex with her but attempting to bring her into the Church? These questions only serve to beget more questions. Was Hanssen a monster of deception using his religion and family as blinds to disguise his treachery? Is he a schizophrenic capable of hermetically compartmentalizing different parts of his personality? Ray does not offer a final answer. Instead, he’s settled for an extremely partial view of the case.
Although there are several books and countless articles on Hanssen, Ray has relied on one source: Eric O’Neill. O’Neill, played by Ryan Phillippe, was an FBI clerk trying to rise to the status of an agent when he was chosen by the Bureau to monitor Hanssen. O’Neill’s FBI handler dissembled, telling him that the Bureau needed to know whether Hanssen was indulging in bizarre sexual interests that could make him susceptible to blackmail. Only late in the game did O’Neill learn that he was doing mole reconnaissance.
Why Ray has chosen to view Hanssen’s career through this narrow window puzzles me. Although O’Neill did get close to Hanssen in his final months at the FBI, there is so much more to this story, including the findings of the reportedly 500-man investigatory team working to establish evidence of his crimes. Why, then, is the film so tightly focused? We see almost nothing of Hanssen making contact with Russian agents. Further, for a contemporary movie, there is shockingly little of Hanssen’s sexual indiscretions. Instead of strippers shrieking “Whoopee, boys!” at the infamous Good Guy Bar in Washington, D.C., we are shown nothing more prurient than some grainy, almost indecipherable clips from the videos he took of himself making love to his wife.
Only the Catholic angle remains. Ray has ordered Cooper to play Hanssen as a creepy religious fanatic who, given the slightest opportunity, lectures associates on the need to put God in their lives. He explains to O’Neill, a cradle Catholic, that his own faith is so intense because he’s a convert from Lutheranism, courtesy of his beloved wife, Bonnie. “She saved me,” he confides. Insisting that O’Neill and his wife accompany Bonnie and him to Mass, he takes them back to his home, where he teasingly reprimands O’Neill for not fattening up his spouse so she can produce some babies, a remark that visibly offends the primly modern Mrs. O’Neill. He even takes O’Neill along when he goes to weekday Mass and afterward opines that the Soviets will never prevail over the West because they lack faith. Each of these scenes portrays Hanssen not as a hypocrite but as a crank. After a while, I began to wonder whether Ray thought Hanssen guilty of spying or of practicing Catholicism. The pièce de résistance comes when Hanssen enters his bedroom to find Bonnie kneeling at the end of their bed, saying the rosary. He sits on the bed watching her, a clearly lustful gleam in his eye. She responds in kind once she blesses herself. Granted, Hanssen is a strange bird, but that’s not what this scene is about. It is clearly designed to suggest there is something inherently deviant in Catholic sexual practices. Bulletin to Ray and his writers: Catholics do not see any contradiction between their faith and their sexual enjoyment. In fact, the last time I checked, the Church encourages hearty intimacies in the cause of love and fecundity, although it does draw the line at sharing them on the internet.
To be fair, Hanssen did behave as dramatized. And no one disputes that he harbored an unholy mix of religiosity and treachery. As such, this enigma betrayed not only his country and his family but also his Church.
In the film’s closing scene, the captured Hanssen asks O’Neill to pray for him. I guess we all should do so as well. And for his family and all those he injured. Before the Bureau finally caught on to him, Hanssen had for a while been appointed to unearth the mole who was himself, an assignment that gave him great pleasure. Maybe he will continue this search for himself by other means and finally find some redemption while serving his life sentence at the United States Penitentiary Administrative Maximum Facility in Florence, Colorado.