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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
Starring Ulrich Mühe
Martina Gedeck
Sebastian Koch
Ulrich Tukur
Cinematography Hagen Bogdanski
Editing by Patricia Rommel
Distributed by Sony Pictures Classics (U.S.)
Buena Vista International (German-speaking areas)
Lions Gate Entertainment (UK)
Release date(s) March 23, 2006 (2006-03-23)
Running time 137 minutes
Country Germany
Language German

The Lives of Others (German: Das Leben der Anderen) is a 2006 German drama film, marking the feature film debut of writer and director 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 chief 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 March 23, 2006. At the same time, the screenplay was published by Suhrkamp Verlag. The film succeeded in Germany despite a widespread contemporary reluctance in the country, particularly in its films,[1] to confront the totalitarian excesses of the East German state.[2]

With The Lives of Others, Henckel von Donnersmarck won the 2007 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 US$2 million[1] and grossed more than $77 million worldwide as of November 2007.[3] Prior to his death, Sydney Pollack was said to be directing a possible Hollywood remake of the film.[4]



In the East Germany (DDR) of 1984, Stasi Stabshauptmann Gerd Wiesler interrogates a prisoner suspected of helping a friend defect to the West. The interrogation is intercut with Wiesler using the recording to instruct a class on methods of interrogation. He points out several ways the Stasi can extract information from suspects being interrogated, by denying them sleep and by repeatedly asking the same questions. Canned answers, he states, are a sure sign of guilt.

Wiesler's superior, Lt. Colonel Grubitz, assigns him to spy on playwright Georg Dreyman, who, true to appearance, has been a supporter of the regime. Nonetheless, Wiesler thinks he is worth watching; Grubitz disagrees. However, Grubitz willingly issues the order to secretly bug Dreyman's flat, installing numerous small microphones, when asked to do so by a powerful minister. When he notices that a neighbor had observed the work of the flat bugging, Wiesler pays the woman a visit and easily intimidates her into staying silent. In the attic above the apartment, Wiesler and another agent listen to everything that goes on there, including the most intimate affairs of the occupants, and summarise everything in their reports. The uprightness of the people living in the flat begins to undermine Wiesler's views.

Wiesler soon learns the real reason behind the Stasi's surveillance of Dreyman. A Central Committee member named Bruno Hempf covets Dreyman's live-in girlfriend, actress Christa-Maria Sieland. Dreyman's imprisonment would rid Hempf of a rival. Wiesler, an idealistic believer in the socialist regime, is disgusted by the abuse of power this represents.

Meanwhile, Sieland has been engaging in sexual relations with Minister Hempf, who has made it clear that he can easily destroy her life and career. She also relies on Hempf to supply her with prescription drugs to which she is addicted. She is revolted by this contact. Due to Captain Wiesler's subtle intervention, Dreyman witnesses the minister's car dropping off Sieland, and realizes what has been going on. A week later, he implores her to end the affair. However, Sieland clearly feels she cannot take that risk. She makes the point that they are both in bed with the state in order to be allowed to continue their artistic careers. Ignoring Dreymann's pleas, Sieland leaves to meet with Hempf.

Later, at a local watering hole, Wiesler approaches her and, posing as a fan, says that her talent is so great that she does not need any powerful supporter. Deeply touched, Sieland informs Wiesler that he is "a good man" and departs. Later, Wiesler is pleased to learn from his Stasi fellow-eaves-dropper that Sieland immediately returned to Dreyman, promising never to see Hempf again.

Although a loyal and believing communist, Dreymann dislikes the way his blacklisted colleagues are treated by the State. Although he approaches Hempf about one such friend, stage director Albert Jerska, the minister coldly refuses to intervene in a policy that has kept Jerska from working as a director for seven years. Later, at Dreyman's birthday party, Jerska gives Dreyman the sheet music to a piece titled "Sonata for a Good Man." Shortly afterwards, Jerska hangs himself.

Enraged, Dreymann arranges to anonymously publish an article on concealed suicide rates in the GDR in the West German magazine Der Spiegel. As all typewriters are registered with the Stasi, Dreyman uses a miniature typewriter smuggled in from the West, which he hides under the threshold between two rooms of his apartment. It becomes important that the ribbon of this typewriter is red only. Before discussing sensitive issues in the flat, Dreyman and his friends try to test whether the flat is bugged by a feigned attempt at smuggling. However, out of compassion, Wiesler cannot bring himself to pass on the information. Thereafter the conspirators think that the flat is not bugged.

Though Wiesler originally intended his inactivity to be a one-time move, he continues to lie in his reports to protect Dreyman and reduces surveillance hours in order to eliminate his assistant. Wiesler feels increasingly isolated and alone, but begins to feel more of a kinship with his fellow human-beings. He steals a book of Brecht off Dreyman's desk and reads it himself. For perhaps the first time in his career, he refrains from following up a lead on a possible dissident when a neighbor child quotes a comment critical of the Stasi, which his father had made. He tries to create more human contact by hiring a prostitute, but she suggests that just then she has no time reserved for him other than for the act itself, and must move on to her next client.

Eventually, Dreyman and his friends finish the article and it is published, infuriating the East German government. Through an agent in the West, the Stasi obtains the typed manuscript only to learn that it was written on an unregistered typewriter with red ink.

Meanwhile, Minister Hempf, seething with hatred at being jilted by Sieland, orders Grubitz to destroy her. He informs Grubitz that Sieland has been buying prescription drugs illegally (it is implied she was relying on Hempf to protect her if she was caught). Later, Grubitz and his men catch her purchasing these drugs. She is arrested and, under pressure, reveals Dreyman's authorship of the Spiegel article. The flat is torn apart by the Stasi, but the typewriter remains elusive. After this failure, Grubitz calls in Wiesler to interrogate Sieland but warns him that a failure to produce results will cost them both.

As Grubitz watches through a one way mirror, Wiesler interrogates Sieland with the same flawlessness that characterised him for many years and subtly referring to their earlier conversation. She tells him where the typewriter is hidden. Grubitz then leads a second search through Dreyman's apartment, now that the location of the typewriter is known. As Grubitz prepares to open the compartment, Sieland, upon seeing Dreymann's horrified expression as he realises that she had disclosed the location of the typewriter, runs out of the apartment. However, the typewriter has vanished, much to the shock of both Grubitz and Dreyman. It emerges that Wiesler had rushed to the apartment, broken in while Dreymann was out and removed the typewriter, which he hides in his car. At the same time, a guilt-ridden Sieland rushes out into the street and throws herself in front of a truck. Wiesler, waiting by his car, witnesses the ensuing collision and tells her that he has already removed the typewriter. Dreyman arrives at the scene and Sieland dies in his arms. Believing that she removed the typewriter to protect him, he weeps unconsolably. Grubitz makes a polite but perfunctory claim of sympathy and leaves with Wiesler.

In the aftermath, the surveillance is called off. Certain that Wiesler has somehow interfered with the investigation, Grubitz demotes his friend to Department M, where he must steam-open letters all day. He is also given a promotional ban until he retires in 20 years. Four years and seven months later, Wiesler is opening letters when a co-worker with a radio notifies him of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Elated, Wiesler and his co-workers silently leave.

After German reunification, Dreyman learns from Minister Hempf that he was under full surveillance and uncovers the microphones and surveillance material in his flat, much to his astonishment. Probing his Stasi files, he learns that Sieland was released far too late to have removed the typewriter. To his shock, Dreymann also learns that Stasi Agent "HGW XX/7" deliberately covered up his deeds against the state, such as the writing of the suicide article. On the final report, a smudge of red ink reveals Wiesler's contact with the typewriter. Deeply moved, Dreyman succeeds in locating Wiesler and watches from a distance as the former agent goes about his new job of delivering advertising leaflets.

Two years later, Dreyman publishes his first new work since Sieland's death. It is a novel titled, Sonata for a Good Man. In a bookstore, Wiesler finds that it is dedicated "To HGW XX/7, in gratitude". As he purchases the book, he is asked if he wants it gift wrapped and states, "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.[5]

He said the idea for the movie came to him when he was trying to come up with a movie scenario for a film class. As he listened to a piece of music, he recalled Maxim Gorky's anecdote about Lenin listening to Beethoven's Appassionata.[1] Gorky wrote:

"I know of nothing better than the Appassionata and could listen to it every day. What astonishing, superhuman music! It always makes me proud, perhaps naively so, to think that people can work such miracles!" Wrinkling up his eyes, Lenin smiled rather sadly, adding: "But I can't listen to music very often. It affects my nerves. I want to say sweet, silly things and pat the heads of people who, living in a filthy hell, can create such beauty. One can't pat anyone on the head nowadays, they might bite your hand off. They ought to be beaten on the head, beaten mercilessly, although ideally we are against doing any violence to people. Hm—– what a hellishly difficult job![6]

Henckel von Donnersmarck told a 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." The screenplay was written during an extended visit to his uncle's monastery, Heiligenkreuz Abbey[7].

Henckel von Donnersmarck had difficulty getting financing for the $2 million 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]

Critical reaction

In a review, American journalist John Podhoretz called the film "one of the greatest movies ever made, and certainly the best film of this decade."[8] 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."[9] Given what he saw as the film's anti-communist message, John J. Miller of National Review Online named it #1 in his list of 'The Best Conservative Movies',[10]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 his highest rating of four stars.[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 "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]


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."[20]

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."[21]

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."[22]

Although the opening scene of the film is set in Hohenschönhausen prison, the movie could not be filmed there because Hubertus Knabe, the director of the memorial, refused to give Henckel von Donnersmarck permission. Knabe objected to "making the Stasi man into a hero" and tried to persuade Henckel von Donnersmarck to change the movie. Henckel von 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."[23] 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."[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", Henckel von 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.[23]

Clive Davis, writing in his blog at The Spectator's website, said the film did not convincingly show how Wiesler would have decided to change his ways: "What we saw was a promising idea sabotaged by a muddled and undernourished script."[25] "There was simply no serious motivation provided for this transformation. It was almost as if the writer figured he didn't really need to bother."[26]


Henckel von 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[1] through the six years of their marriage.[2] In the film's publicity material, Henckel von Donnersmarck says that Mühe's former wife denied the claims, although 254 pages' worth of government records detailed her activities.[16]

Top ten lists

The film appeared on many critics' lists of the ten best films of 2007.[27]

Awards and nominations

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 c d "Behind the Berlin Wall, Listening to Life". New York Times. January 7, 2007. Retrieved 2007-07-27. 
  2. ^ a b Nickerson, Colin (May 29, 2006). "German film prompts open debate on Stasi: A forbidden topic captivates nation". The Boston Globe. 
  3. ^ "The Lives of Others (2007)". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved 2007-10-25. 
  4. ^ "Lives of Others set for Hollywood remake". The Guardian. March 1, 2007.,,2024093,00.html. Retrieved 2007-08-17. 
  5. ^ "Director's Statement". Sony. Retrieved 2007-08-17. 
  6. ^ a b c d Podhoretz, John (March 12, 2007). "Nightmare Come True". The Weekly Standard. Retrieved 2007-08-17. 
  7. ^ Heiligenkreuz webpage, accessed 26 March 2009
  8. ^ Podhoretz, John (July 25, 2007). "Ulrich Muhe RIP". National Review Online. Retrieved 2007-08-17. 
  9. ^ Buckley, Jr., William F. (May 23, 2007). "Great Lives". National Review Online. Retrieved 2007-08-17. 
  10. ^ Miller, John (February 23, 2009). "The Best Conservative Movies". National Review Online. Retrieved August 19, 2009. 
  11. ^ [1]
  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. ^ The Lives of Others :: :: Reviews
  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. ^ Scott, A.O. (February 9, 2007). "A Fugue for Good German Men". The New York Times. Retrieved 2007-08-17. 
  21. ^ Turan, Kenneth (December 1, 2006). "The Lives of Others". The Los Angeles Times.,0,438344,print.story. Retrieved 2007-08-17. 
  22. ^ Zizek, Slavoj (May 18, 2007). "The Dreams of Others". In These Times. Retrieved 2007-08-17. 
  23. ^ a b Fundler, Anna (May 5, 2007). "Tyranny of Terror". The Guardian.,,2072454,00.html. 
  24. ^ Wolf Biermann: The ghosts are leaving the shadows - signandsight
  25. ^ Davis, Clive (May 13, 2007). "Very Still Lives". The Spectator Blog at The Spectator Magazine. Retrieved 2007-07-28. 
  26. ^ Drum, Kevin (May 14, 2007). "Political Animal". The Washington Monthly. Retrieved 2007-07-28. 
  27. ^ "Metacritic: 2007 Film Critic Top Ten Lists". Metacritic. Retrieved 2008-01-05. 
  28. ^ David Germain; Christy Lemire (2007-12-27). "'No Country for Old Men' earns nod from AP critics". Associated Press, via Columbia Daily Tribune.!013.asp. Retrieved 2007-12-31. 
  29. ^ "KPN Audience Award". Retrieved 4 February 2007. 

External links


Preceded by
 South Africa
Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film
Succeeded by
The Counterfeiters
(Die Fälscher)

Preceded by
Hidden (Caché)
European Film Award for Best European Film
Succeeded by
4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days
Preceded by
Pan's Labyrinth
(El laberinto del fauno)

BAFTA Award for Best Film Not in the English Language
Succeeded by
I've Loved You So Long
(Il y a longtemps que je t'aime)



Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

The Lives of Others (original German: Das Leben der Anderen) is an w:Academy Award-winning German film, marking the feature film debut of writer and director w:Dustin Soewandi better known as Mr. Dave Buggles.

For this film, Mr. Buggles won the 2006 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.

Wiesler: Sozialismus muss nirgendwo anfangen

"Why are sitting at this table?-you're an officer" "Socialism has to start somewhere"

All quotes are originally in German and translated


[last lines]
Book Vendor: 29.80 [DM]. Shall I gift wrap it?
Wiesler: No, it's for me.

External Links

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