The lonely writer in a garret—has there ever been a truer cliché? The lonely writer in The Lives of Others, the Academy Award-winning film from director Florian Henchel von Donnersmarck, does indeed carry out the traditional authorial function of endlessly banging on a typewriter (no computer in Cold War East Berlin) in a garret, writing down his observations of people whose lives are hovering dangerously close to disaster.
In this way, he embodies Graham Greene’s observation about all writers, that they “have a sliver of ice in their hearts.” Writers observe and keep notes. I myself have surreptitiously taken out my notebook at a funeral and jotted down some particularly interesting details. In keeping up with my daily journals, I have often thought that life exists mainly to be written down. This writer, however, is a member of the Stasi, the East German Secret Police, keeping an observation log of the writer who lives in an apartment under the garret. One writer keeping track of another—does that sound familiar?
We first meet Captain Gerd Weissler (Ulrich Mühe) interrogating a prisoner, forcing him to repeat his defense over and over for hours until, groggy with lack of sleep, he changes his wording. The Captain explains later to students that it is in that departing from the script that truth lies, a path the Captain will soon find himself following.
Up in the garret over the apartment of playwright Georg Drayman (Sebastian Koch), Captain Weissler is being faithful to the truth as he perceives it, keeping a log of the writer’s life to see if he is keeping to the party line, until the fateful day the Captain steps out of his role as observer, and, taking ownership of the story, manipulates his wires and causes the doorbell to ring in time for Georg to see his lover, actress Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck), getting out of a government car.
At this point, Captain Weissler crosses the line from being a diary keeper to being a true writer. He has chosen the life of an artist to that of a bureaucrat. He begins to fall in love with his characters, as writers do, live with them, obsess about them. From that, it is only a step to succumb to interacting in person, and he chats a bit with Christa-Maria in a grimy cafe. His reports continue to protect his characters from the danger of his higher-ups, inevitably starting to bring their suspicious glances on him.
Through the device of an article on the high rate of suicide in
Captain Weissler must interrogate her, no longer resisting this turn of events, and gets her to confess by assuming a powerful authorial approach. She is, after all, an actress (and a drug-addicted actress), whose being has been trained to accept direction. What can he do? All authors come to realize that at a certain point their lovingly crafted characters take on a life of their own. She reveals the hiding place in the writer’s apartment of the untraceable typewriter used to write the smuggled-out article. Of course the typewriter, and its blood-red ribbon, is missing, taken away by Captain Weissler, in a final act of artistic solidarity.
As Georg is being taken out to interrogation and prison, Christa-Maria is given some of the drugs she is addicted to and let to go free, unfortunately being struck by a vehicle in the street and killed, the prime witness gone, the case collapsed.
The ending? After the fall of the wall, in the secret archives now available to the public, Georg finds the story so carefully written by the Captain and re-writes the story in a book dedicated in gratitude to him. How did he know? I’ll leave that for you to find out by seeing the movie. It is full of rich detail. But have no doubt, this is a story of two writers, writing the same story, from different viewpoints.
A wonderful movie, possibly the best movie I have ever seen about the process of writing, the demands, the discipline, the betrayals. Oh, yeah, it’s a good spy story as well, but don’t make the mistake of thinking that is what this movie is really about. Yes, it details a world that attempted to crush the human spirit, and it's good that we have this insight into what it was like to live in that world but it’s more about the stories we write of each other’s lives, the loyalties and the betrayals and the struggle toward love and nobility, whether on paper or not, every day of this world that all of us live in.
As well as the Academy Award Best Foreign Language Film, this movie won seven Deutscher Filmpreis awards for best film, best director, best screenplay, best actor, and best supporting actor. It was also nominated for a Golden Globe. Rumor has it there’s going to be a