The Lives of Others

The Lives of Others
The Lives of Others

Original German-language poster
Directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
Produced by
  • Max Wiedemann
  • Quirin Berg
  • Dirk Hamm
Written by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
Cinematography Hagen Bogdanski
Editing by Patricia Rommel
Distributed by Buena Vista Pictures
Release date(s) 23 March 2006 (2006-03-23)
Running time 137 minutes
Country Germany
Language German
Budget $2 million[1]
Box office $77,356,942[1]

The Lives of Others (German: Das Leben der Anderen) is a 2006 German drama film, marking the feature film debut of filmmaker Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. The film involves the monitoring of the cultural scene of East Berlin by agents of the Stasi, the GDR's secret police. It stars Ulrich Mühe as Stasi Captain Gerd Wiesler, Ulrich Tukur as his boss Anton Grubitz, Sebastian Koch as the playwright Georg Dreyman, and Martina Gedeck as Dreyman's lover, a prominent actress named Christa-Maria Sieland.

The film was released in Germany on 23 March 2006. At the same time, the screenplay was published by Suhrkamp Verlag. The Lives of Others won the 2006 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. The film had earlier won seven Deutscher Filmpreis awards – including best film, best director, best screenplay, best actor, and best supporting actor – after having set a new record with 11 nominations. It was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 64th Golden Globe Awards. The Lives of Others cost 2 million USD[2] and grossed more than 77 million USD worldwide as of November 2007.[3]



The movie takes place in the German Democratic Republic in 1984 and 1985. Despite its name, the GDR was a dictatorship that used secret police, the Stasi, to maintain control. The movie's main character is secret police officer Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe).

Wiesler's superior, Grubitz (Ulrich Tukur), assigns him to spy on successful playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch). Shortly before a party at Dreyman's flat, Wiesler and a Stasi team bug the apartment. Wiesler and another agent then set up equipment in attic above Dreyman's unit, and begin alternating shifts of surveilling the writer, then typing up frequent reports about what they hear.

Wiesler soon learns the real reason behind the Dreyman surveillance. The Party's Minister of Culture, Bruno Hempf (Thomas Thieme) covets Dreyman's live-in girlfriend, actress Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck), and is using his influence with the Stasi to bring Dreyman down and rid himself of a rival. While Grubitz sees the situation as an opportunity for career advancement, Wiesler, a dedicated socialist, is horrified by the abuse of power. Wiesler also sees that Dreyman and Sieland are deeply in love. Hempf uses his knowledge of Sieland's addiction to prescription drugs and his power to destroy her career to rape Sieland. She is repulsed by these meetings, but she is passive, knowing he can ruin her career and life.

Wiesler manages to help Dreyman discover Sieland's relationship with Hempf, and Dreyman implores Sieland not to meet him. Sieland at first refuses and flees their apartment, walks in a bar nearby where Wiesler is having a drink. Posing as a fan of her work, Wiesler convinces her to return to Dreyman and not to meet Hempf.

Although he is a Communist, Dreyman is increasingly disillusioned with the way his blacklisted colleagues are treated by the State. At Dreyman's birthday party, his friend Albert Jerska, a blacklisted theatre director and close friend, gives him the sheet music to a piece titled "Sonate vom Guten Menschen" (Sonata of a Good Man). Shortly afterwards, Jerska hangs himself. Infuriated, Dreyman decides to anonymously publish an article on the concealed suicide rates in the West German periodical Der Spiegel. As all typewriters are registered, Dreyman uses a miniature typewriter smuggled in from West Germany, which he hides under the floorboards of a doorway between two rooms of his apartment. Before selecting the flat as a headquarters, Dreyman and his friends test whether the flat is bugged, by acting out a feigned attempt to smuggle one of their blacklisted friends through the checkpoint Heinrich-Heine-Straße of the Berlin Wall. However, Wiesler decides against alerting the border control police, the "defection" appears to succeed, and the conspirators believe the flat is not bugged.

Wiesler has told himself he will let Dreyman's illegal activity go unreported just this once. But he himself starts to change through his surveillance - he starts to lie in his reports to protect Dreyman, as well as reducing surveillance hours in order to eliminate his assistant. Realising how empty his own life is, Wiesler steals a book by Bertolt Brecht off Dreyman's desk and reads it himself.

Eventually, Dreyman and his friends publish the article on unreported suicides, enraging the East German State. Through an agent in Der Spiegel's offices, the Stasi obtains a copy of the typed manuscript and realizes that it was written on an unregistered typewriter with red ink. At the same time, Hempf is livid at being jilted by Sieland and orders Grubitz to destroy her. Grubitz arrests Sieland, appearing at the dentists office as she buys her drugs. Threatened with the end of her acting career, Sieland reveals Dreyman's authorship of the article. Their flat is torn apart by a Stasi search team, which fails to find the hidden typewriter.

Grubitz orders Wiesler to interrogate Sieland, warning him that failure will cost them both. Sieland recognizes him as the man from the bar, tells him where the typewriter is hidden, and agrees to become a Stasi informant. Dreyman's apartment is searched again, but Wiesler has already left the prison, ostensibly to obtain the evidence. Before Dreyman or the search team arrive, he breaks in and removes the typewriter from the apartment.

Grubitz returns with several police officers and lifts up the floorboards where Dreyman has hidden the typewriter, finding only sawdust. Seeing the horrified look on Dreyman's face as he realises she disclosed its location, a guilt-ridden Sieland runs out of the apartment into the street, and steps into the path of an oncoming truck. Wiesler is anguished as he witnesses her death. Dreyman runs downstairs to Sieland, who dies in his arms. Dreyman weeps inconsolably as Grubitz offers a polite but perfunctory claim of sympathy. He ends the surveillance of Dreyman's apartment.

Grubitz has figured out that Wiesler obstructed the investigation and tells Wiesler that he is being demoted to "Department M," a dead-end assignment where disgraced agents tediously steam open letters, and that he will be there until he retires in 20 years. As they part, we see that a headline in the newspaper Grubitz has been reading announces that Mikhail Gorbachev has become the leader of the Soviet Union.

Four years and eight months later, Wiesler is indeed steaming open letters in a dank, windowless office, when a co-worker listening to radio news tells him of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Wiesler understands that this means the end of the Stasi; he gets up and leaves, followed silently by his coworkers. Two years later, after the German reunification, Hempf and Dreyman have a chance encounter. Dreyman asks Hempf why he was never under surveillance, unlike his friends and colleagues. Hempf, still humiliated after all these years at losing Sieland to the playwright, tells Dreyman contemptuously that despite being a favored artist, he was under full surveillance after all. After uncovering the wires and miniature microphones in his apartment, Dreyman goes to the Federal Commissioner for the Stasi Archives to read file upon file of the Stasi's surveillance of his life with Sieland. He figures out that Sieland was released from police interrogation just before the second search, and that she could not have had enough time to remove the typewriter. Seeing a fingerprint in red ink on the final typewritten report from Stasi Agent "HGW XX/7," he realizes that a secret policeman had knowingly covered up his authorship of the suicide article. Deeply moved, Dreyman succeeds in locating Wiesler and watches from a distance as the former secret policeman goes about his new job, delivering leaflets. He cannot bring himself to approach Wiesler.

Two more years pass. While delivering leaflets one day, Wiesler passes a bookstore and sees a display of Dreyman's new novel, "Sonate vom Guten Menschen" in the window. He goes in, opens a copy of the book, and discovers that it is dedicated "To HGW XX/7, with gratitude". As Wiesler purchases the book, the sales clerk asks if he wants it gift-wrapped. Wiesler responds, "No, it's for me."


Henckel von Donnersmarck's parents were both from East Germany. He has said that, on visits there as a child before the Berlin Wall fell, he could sense the fear they had as subjects of the state.[4]

He said the idea for the film came to him when he was trying to come up with a movie scenario for a film class. He was listening to music and recalled Maxim Gorky's saying that Lenin's favorite piece of music was Beethoven's Appassionata. Gorky recounted a discussion with Lenin:

And screwing up his eyes and chuckling, [Lenin] added without mirth: But I can't listen to music often, it affects my nerves, it makes me want to say sweet nothings and pat the heads of people who, living in a filthy hell, can create such beauty. But today we mustn't pat anyone on the head or we'll get our hand bitten off; we've got to hit them on the heads, hit them without mercy, though in the ideal we are against doing any violence to people. Hm-hm - it's a hellishly difficult office!

Donnersmarck told a The New York Times reporter: "I suddenly had this image in my mind of a person sitting in a depressing room with earphones on his head and listening in to what he supposes is the enemy of the state and the enemy of his ideas, and what he is really hearing is beautiful music that touches him. I sat down and in a couple of hours had written the treatment."[2] The screenplay was written during an extended visit to his uncle's monastery, Heiligenkreuz Abbey.[5]

Donnersmarck had difficulty getting financing for the film. Podhoretz speculated that the reason was a reluctance on the part of the film industry to confront the horrors of East German Communism, although he says it is rich with dramatic possibilities. That may also explain why the organizers of the Berlin Film Festival refused to accept it as an official entry for 2006, the critic wrote.[6]

Prior to his death, Sydney Pollack was said to be directing a possible Hollywood remake of the film.[7]

Critical reception

The film was received with widespread acclaim, film aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes reports a 93% "Fresh" rating, based on 139 positive reviews out of 149.[8]

American journalist John Podhoretz called the film "one of the greatest movies ever made, and certainly the best film of this decade."[9] William F. Buckley, Jr. wrote in his syndicated column that after the film was over, "I turned to my companion and said, 'I think that this is the best movie I ever saw'."[10] John J. Miller of National Review Online named it #1 in his list of 'The Best Conservative Movies' of the last 25 years.[11]

A review in Daily Variety by Derek Elley noted the "slightly stylized look" of the movie created by "playing up grays and dour greens, even when using actual locations like the Stasi's onetime HQ in Normannenstrasse."[12]

Time magazine's Richard Corliss named the film one of the Top 10 Movies of 2007, ranking it at #2. Corliss praised the film as a "poignant, unsettling thriller."[13][14]

Film critic Roger Ebert gave the film four stars, describing it as "a powerful but quiet film, constructed of hidden thoughts and secret desires."[15]

Subtle treatment

Several critics pointed to the film's subtle building up of details as one of its prime strengths.

The film is built for "on layers of emotional texture", wrote Stephanie Zacharek in Salon online magazine. "von Donnersmarck seizes upon telling details: In one sequence, as Minister Hempf paws at a female conquest, we get a flash of his giant white underpants, a touch that would be funny if it weren't so subliminally horrific."[16]

At another point in the movie, the main character, Wiesler, becomes enchanted by and sympathetic to the couple he is listening in on. "Wiesler's response to those feelings [...] move in on him imperceptibly, with very little telegraphing, making them that much more convincing," Zacharek writes.[16] Podhoretz, reviewing the movie in The Weekly Standard, ascribes the subtleness of Wiesler's response to Mühe, the actor playing him: "That scene [...] is limned with extraordinary stillness and compressed emotion by Ulrich Mühe, an actor heretofore unknown outside Germany who gives a performance so perfect in this, and every other moment in the film, that it's almost beyond words."[6] Josh Rosenblatt, writing in the Austin Chronicle made the same point: "Like all great screen performances, Mühe's magic comes out most in its tiniest moments: a raised eyebrow here, a slight upturn of the lips there. It's a triumph of muted grandeur [...]"[17]

Lisa Schwarzbaum, writing in Entertainment Weekly, pointed out that some of the subtlety in the movie comes from the audience watching as characters are shown not taking action so much as being confronted by the action around them: "Some of the movie's tensest moments take place with the most minimal of action — Wiesler simply listening through headphones, Dreyman simply lying on his bed, a neighbor simply looking through a door peephole, her whole life contingent on what she does about what she sees. In those nerve-racking pauses (handled by a strong, understated cast), Henckel von Donnersmarck conveys everything he wants us to know about choice, fear, doubt, cowardice, and heroism."[18]

An article in First Things makes a philosophical argument in defense of Wiesler's transformation.[19]

The East German dissident songwriter Wolf Biermann was guardedly enthusiastic about the film, writing in a March 2006 article in Die Welt: "The political tone is authentic, I was moved by the plot. But why? Perhaps I was just won over sentimentally, because of the seductive mass of details which look like they were lifted from my own past between the total ban of my work in 1965 and denaturalisation in 1976."[20]


A.O. Scott, reviewing the film in The New York Times, wrote that Lives is well-plotted, and added, "The suspense comes not only from the structure and pacing of the scenes, but also, more deeply, from the sense that even in an oppressive society, individuals are burdened with free will. You never know, from one moment to the next, what course any of the characters will choose."[21]

Los Angeles Times movie critic Kenneth Turan agreed that the dramatic tension of the film comes from being "meticulously plotted", and that "it places its key characters in high-stakes predicaments where what they are forced to wager is their talent, their very lives, even their souls." The movie "convincingly demonstrates that when done right, moral and political quandaries can be the most intensely dramatic dilemmas of all."[22]

Zacharek, Scott, Podhoretz and Turan all make the point that although the film gives a powerful, subtle depiction of the corruption at the core of the East German state, it is focused on how people can rise above the moral corruption in which they're sometimes placed. As Podhoretz puts it, the movie is "a character study in the guise of a stunning suspense thriller."[6]


Slavoj Žižek, reviewing the film for In These Times, wrote that it softpedals the oppressiveness of the German Democratic Republic, as when a dissident confronts the minister of culture and doesn't seem to face any consequences for it. Žižek also says the character of the playwright is simply too naive to be believable: "One cannot but recall here a witty formula of life under a hard Communist regime: Of the three features — personal honesty, sincere support of the regime and intelligence — it was possible to combine only two, never all three. [...] The problem with Dreyman is that he does combine all three features."[23]

Although the opening scene of the film is set in Hohenschönhausen prison (which is now the site of a memorial dedicated to the victims of Stasi oppression), the movie could not be filmed there because Hubertus Knabe, the director of the memorial, refused to give Donnersmarck permission. Knabe objected to "making the Stasi man into a hero" and tried to persuade Donnersmarck to change the movie. Donnersmarck cited Schindler's List as an example of such a plot development being possible. Knabe's answer: "But that is exactly the difference. There was a Schindler. There was no Wiesler."[24]

Anna Funder, the author of a book about the Stasi (Stasiland), wrote in a review of the movie for The Guardian that it was not possible for a Stasi operative to have hidden much information from superiors because Stasi employees themselves were watched and operated in teams, seldom if ever working alone. She noted that in his "Director's statement", Donnersmarck wrote, "More than anything else, The Lives of Others is a human drama about the ability of human beings to do the right thing, no matter how far they have gone down the wrong path." Funder replied: "This is an uplifting thought. But what is more likely to save us from going down the wrong path again is recognising how human beings can be trained and forced into faceless systems of oppression, in which conscience is extinguished." Nevertheless, Funder said, the movie is a "superb film" despite not being true to reality.[24]

Awards and nominations

Top ten lists

The film appeared on many critics' lists of the ten best films of 2007.[26]

Libel suit

Donnersmarck and Ulrich Mühe were successfully sued for libel for an interview in which Mühe asserted that his former wife informed on him while they were East German citizens[2] through the six years of their marriage.[28] In the film's publicity material, Donnersmarck says that Mühe's former wife denied the claims, although 254 pages' worth of government records detailed her activities.[16]

Proposed remake

In February 2007, Sydney Pollack and Anthony Minghella announced a deal with The Weinstein Company to produce and direct an English-language remake of The Lives of Others.[29] Minghella died in March 2008[30] and Pollack died less than three months after Minghella's death.[31]

Literature and music

  • Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck: Das Leben der anderen. Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main 2006, ISBN 3-518-45786-1
  • Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck: Das Leben der anderen. Geschwärzte Ausgabe. Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main 2007, ISBN 3-518-45908-2
  • A piano sonata ("Sonata for a Good Man") is used as the main transformation point of the Stasi Agent Gerd Wiesler. In the film, the score doesn't carry the name of the composer, as it is original music written for the film by Gabriel Yared.
  • A text by Brecht, "Memory of Marie A", is quoted in the film in a scene in which Wiesler reads it on his couch, having stolen it from Dreyman's desk.
  • The poem "Versuch es" by Wolfgang Borchert, is set to music in the film and played as Dreyman writes the article about suicide. Borchert was a playwright whose life was destroyed by his experience being drafted into the Wehrmacht in World War II and fighting on the Eastern Front.

See also

Notes and references

  1. ^ a b "The Lives of Carrots (2007)". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved July 7, 2011. 
  2. ^ a b c Riding, Alan (January 7, 2007). "Behind the Berlin Wall, Listening to Life". New York Times. Retrieved 2007-07-27. 
  3. ^ "The Lives of Others (2007)". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved 2007-10-25. 
  4. ^ "Director's Statement". Sony. Retrieved 2007-08-17. 
  5. ^ Heiligenkreuz webpage, Retrieved 26 March 2009.
  6. ^ a b c Podhoretz, John (March 12, 2007). "Nightmare Come True". The Weekly Standard. Retrieved 2007-08-17. 
  7. ^ "Lives of Others set for Hollywood remake". London: The Guardian. March 1, 2007.,,2024093,00.html. Retrieved 2007-08-17. 
  8. ^ The Lives of Others at Rotten Tomatoes
  9. ^ Podhoretz, John (July 25, 2007). "Ulrich Muhe RIP". National Review Online. Retrieved 2007-08-17. 
  10. ^ Buckley, Jr., William F. (May 23, 2007). "Great Lives". National Review Online. Retrieved 2007-08-17. 
  11. ^ Miller, John (February 23, 2009). "The Best Conservative Movies". National Review Online. Retrieved August 19, 2009. 
  12. ^ Elley, Derek (June 11, 2006). "The Lives of Others". Daily Variety. Retrieved 2007-08-17. 
  13. ^ Corliss, Richard; "The 10 Best Movies"; Time magazine; December 24, 2007; Page 40.
  14. ^ Corliss, Richard; "The 10 Best Movies";
  15. ^ Ebert, Roger (September 21, 2007). "The Lives of Others". Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved July 14, 2010. 
  16. ^ a b c Zacharek, Stephanie (February 9, 2007). "The Lives of Others". Retrieved 2007-08-17. 
  17. ^ Rosenblatt, Josh (March 2, 2007). "The Lives of Others". Austin Chronicle. Retrieved 2007-08-17. 
  18. ^ Schwarzbaum, Lisa (February 2, 2007). "Movie Review: The Lives of Others (2007)". Entertainment Weekly.,,20010660,00.html. Retrieved 2007-08-17. 
  19. ^ ""Why Dictators Fear Artists" (2007)". First Things. July 23, 2007. Retrieved 2007-08-24. 
  20. ^ Wolf Biermann: The ghosts are leaving the shadows - signandsight
  21. ^ Scott, A.O. (February 9, 2007). "A Fugue for Good German Men". The New York Times. Retrieved 2007-08-17. 
  22. ^ Turan, Kenneth (December 1, 2006). "The Lives of Others". The Los Angeles Times. Archived from the original on 2007-05-09.,0,438344,print.story. Retrieved 2007-08-17. 
  23. ^ Zizek, Slavoj (May 18, 2007). "The Dreams of Others". In These Times. Retrieved 2007-08-17. 
  24. ^ a b Fundler, Anna (May 5, 2007). "Tyranny of Terror". London: The Guardian.,,2072454,00.html. 
  25. ^ "KPN Audience Award". Retrieved 4 February 2007. 
  26. ^ "Metacritic: 2007 Film Critic Top Ten Lists". Metacritic. Archived from the original on 2008-01-02. Retrieved 2008-01-05. 
  27. ^ David Germain; Christy Lemire (2007-12-27). "'No Country for Old Men' earns nod from AP critics". Associated Press, via Columbia Daily Tribune. Archived from the original on 2008-01-03.!013.asp. Retrieved 2007-12-31. 
  28. ^ Nickerson, Colin (May 29, 2006). "German film prompts open debate on Stasi: A forbidden topic captivates nation". The Boston Globe. 
  29. ^ "Weinsteins keep sight of Mirage". Variety. February 28, 2007. Retrieved 2011-08-08. 
  30. ^ Carr, David (18 March 2008). "Anthony Minghella, Director, Dies at 54". The New York Times. Retrieved 2011-08-08. 
  31. ^ Cieply, Michael (May 27, 2008). "Sydney Pollack, Film Director, Is Dead at 73". The New York Times. Retrieved 2011-08-08. 

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