There must be some cosmic significance to the fact that Netflix sent me The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen) just in time for me to watch it late yesterday, around the time that the latest, and gobsmackingest, NSA revelations came to light. It's just as well that I wasn't aware of the latter until this morning, otherwise I would've been curled up and sobbing midway through the movie.
The story follows Stasi agent Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe) as he monitors playwright and suspected subversive Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) via wires and cameras in and around his apartment. From his darkened room, Wiesler begins to grow too involved with Dreyman and his lover, stage actress Christa-Maria (Martina Gedeck), thereby endangering just about every character in the movie. The story is fictional, but obviously historical, and feels no less real than, say, Argo.
The tension throughout can only be described as delicious. Early on, it's helped by the fact that Wiesler looks like a scarier Kevin Spacey (and if you thought such a thing wasn't possible, just see Mühe's steely gaze at the theater in one of the early scenes). Later, as the understated plot builds, we viewers who are familiar with Big Brothery narratives begin wondering how it's all going to end, as is to be expected with a movie like this. I'm happy to report the ending was not especially predictable, and even happier that the path to it was so consistently riveting.
The sense of place is so strong here that I wish this production team had left their sets up and shot a remake of 1984. I gotta call out the excellent costuming and makeup, too. Wiesler's immediate superior looks like he just stepped out of a Rockford episode, and Wiesler himself, late in the film, wears a Members Only jacket because of course he would.
If I have any criticism at all of The Lives of Others, it's that in parts, its plot turns and its character's choices seemed slightly implausible. I suspect that, at numerous points in the narrative, what would have really happened in East Germany at that time would have resulted in a more rapid end to the story. That said, nothing struck me as implausible enough to hurt immersion or verisimilitude. (Of course, the GDR isn't one of my areas of historical knowledge.)
The Lives of Others is refreshing as a spy movie because it's not what we think of when we think "spy movie," not Bond nor Bourne nor leCarré; it's successful as a spy movie because its focus is on the human element. It reminds us that huge, faceless, seemingly omnipotent organizations are still composed of, and dependent upon, individuals. The NSA may have just been revealed as having developed an actual online panopticon; it may have ensured the end of U.S. dominance of the global tech sector, which our economy very obviously cannot afford; it may have planted the seeds for an actual, full-on future totalitarian regime in America…but no system, moral or amoral, functional or dysfunctional, can last forever.
Star Score: 4.5 out of 5