Cinema Signal:

The Untold Story of the East German Secret Police
by John O. Koehler

"THE FIRST TIME I MET Erich Mielke, the notorious chief of the communist East German secret police, was in February 1965, during a reception for..."

[Ed. note: because of the unpredictable way accented letters are rendered
in English language browsers, they have been intentionally omitted.]

"The Lives of Others" (aka, "Das Leben der Anderen")

When the Berlin Wall came down -- the one seperating East and West Germany -- an unimaginable opportunity opened up. The repressed and unjustly imprisoned victims of a totalitarian regime were suddenly able to learn what the party had on them. Artists, intellectuals, convicts and other bothersome rabble were now free citizens, and they were invited into the belly of the beast: the headquarters of the Stasi, the GDR's secret police organ patterned on Russia's KGB. Here, they had complete access to their own files and could find out which agent ratted them out. And, possibly, why. As the title message points out, the East German government had 100,000 people in its employ. It had 200,000 informers.

Assuming that this story was forged from the records East German spymasters created with their bent for precision, it is an accurate depiction of a society controlled by sociopaths in power who held their people under their oppresive thumb and paranoid concept of control.

In the prologue scene, loyal Stasi-Hauptman Gerd Wiesler (superb Ulrich Muhe) performs a by-the-book interrogation of a suspected activist, recording every word. Later, he plays the recording for a class of trainees, pointing out the principles of determining lies and extracting truth. His methods are more mental torture than physical. The end of his lecture is greeted with applause by one set of hands-- that of his Stasi superior, Oberstleutnant Anton Grubitz (excellent Ulrich Tukur) who thinks the work of the methodical mentor just grand.

When these two attend a play by the popular (hence suspicious) writer Georg Dreyman (admirable Sebastian Koch), starring his sweetheart Christa Maria Sieland (fine Martina Gedeck), an increasingly famous actress, Grubitz points out Minister Bruno Hempf himself (Thomas Thieme) in the audience. Later, the post show cast party and reception is as full of performers as it is these upper level operatives. Hempf is particularly interested in Dreyman's true beliefs, not trusting what purports to be work that is completely loyal. He's even more interested in Dreyman's girlfriend for reasons he makes grossly apparent by squeezing her backside. He will have what he want--his party position assures him that--and he puts into motion a case against Dreyman.

It falls into Grubitz' arena of influence who hands it off to his boy Wiesler. Starting with the complete bugging of the couple's apartment, Wiesler, who is now "HGW XX/7" on the case files, listens to every word spoken by his suspects. But, on the way toward amassing evidence against them, something strange happens. Their innocent pursuit of an artistic -- not political -- life is affecting his thinking. Can the resolutely soulless apparatchik of the party becoming a doubter of the party line? Is he being corrupted by the subjects of his spying? Could it be that there's no evidence of the writer's disloyalty and that there could be unintended consequences of the spy operation itself? As he listens, he shows increasing appreciation of his two artists, until it's a matter of protection against false accusation.

How the mechanics of a Stasi operation plays out, how it develops desired and undesired consequences for all involved, and how these results effect the resolution of a game of dangerous and serious proportions is astutely related in every detail. This is near-perfect plotting and sterling story structure by writer-director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck in the interests of exposing postwar evil to the intense glare of enlightened understanding. Where has this guy been?

On the short list of films I saw this year that brought me satisfaction for having seen them, this is among those at the top for a script that is a model of writing and a cast that is ideal. The additional reward is in the outcome that Gorbachov wrote in 1993 in his re-writing of communism that created Glasnost and brought down the Wall.

This film has been selected as Germany's official entrant in 2006's Best Foreign Language Film Award at the Motion Picture Academy. As it competes for a nomination I'll be rooting for it.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner
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Ulrich Muhe as loyal Stasi-Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler
Listening, learning.
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