Ulrich Mühe plays a Stasi officer trained to spy on East German citizens in The Lives of Others.
By Rania Richardson
Surveillance is a weapon in The Lives of Others, a political thriller based on historical events in East Germany just prior to the collapse of the Berlin Wall.
Florian Henckel von Donnersmarcks debut feature revolves around the world of the communist secret police, known as the Stasi, who monitor every potential dissident in order to crush the remotest hint of opposition. Artists and writers are their key targets because of their free spirits and their capacity to influence public opinion.
The fictional story follows a committed Stasi officer, Captain Gerd Wiesler, who becomes disillusioned with his covert mission and undergoes a quiet transformation as he monitors a renowned playwright and his actress girlfriend. He records their creative plans, personal struggles, intimate conversations, even their lovemaking.
Earlier this month Henckel von Donnersmarck sat down with an international group of journalists to talk about the film. Towering at 69, he was loquacious in discussing his first feature, recently nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.
I actually know the Cold War very well because it happened every evening at our dinner table. I cant remember a single peaceful conversation about politics in our home, he said, explaining that his mothers sympathies were with East Germany, while his father, an executive at Lufthansa, supported the West. Born in Cologne in 1973, the writer/director grew up in New York and West Berlin and studied at the National Institute in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) and Oxford University before attending the Munich Film Academy.
I was the first Western student from a non-socialist country, he said referring to the Institute in Leningrad, where he encountered surveillance first hand in 1991, at the cusp of the dissolving of the Soviet Union. The KGB guy got excited that now he really had a target! So he made an effort of keeping me totally shadowed, which was pointless because there was nobody interested in that anymore at all. He was just still in that habit. I felt very deeply honored by his interest, the director added with a smile. Years later, he ran into that same KGB operative and learned that he had become a real estate dealer.
Henckel von Donnersmarcks memories of communist Russia informed the look of The Lives of Others. The colors of the Eastern Bloc were different. People always say it was gray, gray, and gray. Colors werent as bright and shiny. The colors of the Trabant cars were all washed out. Why couldnt you make a red car red and a blue car blue, and not this kind of weird turquoise where you feel like they just gave it one coating? he said, describing the standard socialist vehicle. Even the red of the national flag was not red enough it had a slightly orangey touch to it. A chemist who explained that certain color patents were not available in the East validated his observation. Thus a drained palette became his color concept for the film.
The director spent several years researching the atrocities of the Stasi and the politics of the era to add to his impressions from childhood, when his family would visit relatives in the East. An eye-opening event came when his mother was held for hours and strip searched during a routine border check
Ulrich Mühe, cast as the Captain who has a crisis of conscience, had his own memories as a victim of Stasi espionage. As a star of East German theater, he found out from his declassified files that four members of his trusted theater group had been planted to spy on him. More shockingly echoing a plot line in the film his wife of six years was a registered informer throughout their marriage.
According to Henckel von Donnersmarck, The Stasi had known that he was going to be a big star even before he knew it. He was a very talented actor with a special magnetism, so the Stasi positioned him for his military service at age 18 at the Berlin Wall with the order to shoot people who had crossed from the East to the West. They said to him very clearly, If you do not shoot to kill, you will not be allowed to study acting and become an actor. But if he did shoot to kill he wouldnt have been able to become an actor either because he wouldnt be able to live with himself. His body found a solution by collapsing on service with stomach ulcers at age 18 which had to be operated on so he was then dismissed from serving the second half of his service.
Despite the wide acclaim the film received in Germany, the publicized details of Mühes experiences were met with mixed reaction. Half the press branded him a hero, the other half thought he shouldnt air his dirty laundry in public, Henckel von Donnersmarck said, reinforcing the subjects polarizing nature.