“Who is HGW XX/7?” Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) asks late in The Lives of Others. By that time, the audience is well aware of who Haptmann Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Muhe), codename HGW XX/7 is. He is a Stasi operative who spies on his own people, a professional voyeur, a socialist, a party man, a patron of prostitutes, and, unexpectedly, he is a good man.
Set in East Berlin in 1984, The Lives of Others depicts a Stasi operation to gather information on an allegedly subversive playwright, Dreyman. Tasked with listening to Dreyman’s entire life, the Stasi operative, Wiesler, is exposed to Dreyman’s optimism, western influences, and most crucially, Dreyman’s girlfriend, the actress Christa-Marie Sieland (Martina Gedeck). During his surveillance, Wiesler also becomes aware of the corruption of the agency he works for and the regime that he serves. As a result, he begins to slowly intercede in the lives of Dreyman and Christa, inserting himself between them and the terrifying power of the East German Government.
The Lives of Others is extraordinary. Each character negotiates a moral minefield, torn by conflicting loyalties to one another and to their country. The characters are rational, thoughtful, articulate, and perfectly crafted by the actors. Apparently, the East Germany depicted here is extremely true to life. And quietly observing all of this, is Wiesler: a good man in a very bad business, who manages to do a few decent things in his little corner of the dictatorship.
When The Lives of Others opened in an interrogation room where Wiesler was extracting information out of a dissenter, I did not expect that by the end of the movie I would agree that Wiesler was a good man. Nor did I expect that I would feel nearly as much empathy for him as I did for the artists he spied on. The fact that Wiesler could be turned into a figure of humanity is a tribute to the supreme talent of Ulrich Muhe in his final role before his death. I could not believe how much I liked The Lives of Others, or how thoughtfully it dealt with the topic of government surveillance. But most of all, I was deeply moved by the very hopeful idea at the core of the film, that sometimes our humanity shines through even when it seems impossible that it could. That’s a very hopeful idea, one worthy of one of Georg Dreyman’s plays.
From Out in the Void,