'Lives' of Spy and Prey Paralleled in Eastern Bloc Thriller

    Two Stasi agents sit in the balcony of a large theater in East Germany in the early 1980s. Actors are performing a play about the strengths of socialism, but instead the agents are watching the man in the VIP box: Georg Dreyman, well-respected citizen and the only writer in East Germany not under surveillance by the Stasi. Gerd Wiesler, one of the Stasi, wants to change that. Over the next few years, the two will come face to face only once, yet their impact on each other’s lives will resound noticeably through the rest of their days. This is the heart of “The Lives of Others,”” one of Oscar’s Foreign Language Film nominees.

    Wiesler (Ulrich Muhe) is a hallowed man, rooted in socialist convictions and lacking in social niceties. Yet the moment he headphones his ears into the tapped writer’s life, he undergoes a transformation. This is not just a simple case of dissent or loyalty: Wiesler begins to connect to Dreyman (Sebastian Koch), who lives with his actress girlfriend. While Wiesler battles his loneliness, Dreyman faces a growing dissatisfaction with the socialist state, watching his peers’ oppression and his girlfriend’s role as pseudo-mistress to the Minister of Culture, Wiesler’s superior. In one of the most powerful scenes, we watch as he vents his frustrations with her duties; but she then points out that considering his supposed loyalty to the state, they are essentially doing the same thing.

    Events force Dreyman to make crucial decisions, ones that will directly affect Wiesler’s surveillance. But by now he sees Dreyman in a new light, and loyalty is divided between work and emotion. Both men are trapped by their state and each, in a way, are directly dependent on the other. Director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck maximizes all this with narrowed sets and tightly framed shots that cage Wiesler and Dreyman.

    Yet, “Others”” plays not just as a character drama, but also a commentary. Life beyond the Berlin Wall was all too well known — or, at least, assumed — and here, the bleak and drab existence behind the wall contrasts the multicultural interests of Dreyman and his colleagues. Though a gloom consumes the film, it is not without hope.

    By the time Wiesler and Dreyman finally meet — if that’s what you would call it — their lives’ internal and external changes have gone from evolutionary to catastrophic. And while only one man is aware of the significance of the meeting, it later proves to be a moment of silent understanding between both — one that will break the men down, but also build them back up.

    “The Lives of Others”” opens at Landmark La Jolla Village on Feb. 16.

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