In the movie “The Lives of Others,” the STASI and oppression of the East German regime are revealed to the viewer through authoritarian techniques of surveillance and control prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall, the reunification of Germany and the collapse of communism in the region. Throughout this film, characters and scenes depict, in vivid detail, the attempts of the authoritarian East German government to instill unquestioning obedience and devotion to the state to ensure complete control. At face value, the baseline of the story seems heavy handed, but what the film truly draws is a tense thriller entwined with a morality play.
One especially powerful and telling scene is the planting of bugs at Dreyman’s house. After orders come from Minister Hempf to have continuous surveillance of Dreyman, Weisler and a team of STASI agents break into his house, plant equipment, and set up shop just upstairs in the loft of the building in order to watch, monitor, and record his every action.
This is a blatant disregard of private property. Such an act is against the law in our country, or any free society for that matter, thus exemplifying the level of tyranny and oppression in the East German state. Beyond this, the STASI go so far as to intimidate witnesses. Dreyman’s neighbor, who witnesses this break-in, through fear, is forced to cripple to the will of the authoritarian state and be obedient to it through threats and intimidation.
But for all this doom and gloom, there are those who resist—their resistance forming the central cog in the film’s plot. One such character is Dreyman. Dreyman is an ideologist that is searching for more, which includes more freedom. The might of state security is humbling among his friends, especially Hauser, and most of them seem to realize that there is very little they can do. Even though Dreyman realizes that he has to resist the system himself, he chooses to do it anonymously via a Western publication. Dreyman defies this oppressive situation by seeking refuge in condemning words against the government.
Another character that bucks the system in favor of freedom is Weisler. Over the course of the film, Weisler, a STASI agent, goes through a metamorphosis of perception. Weisler begins the film by having the same level of state devotion as many of his colleagues, following orders to the tee and ignoring the human side of his work. However, he undergoes a change of heart once he begins Operation Lazlo and spies on Dreyman and Christina-Maria. Weisler begins a crusade of making sure Dreyman is able to publish his suicide article in Western Papers because of his realization of the brutal and inhumane nature of the authoritarian regime. Weisler leaves behind the shell of his former self and begins a new chapter devoted to changing the world by exposing the masters of terror that are holding the country hostage through authoritarian control and surveillance; thus, resisting the state and its oppressive nature.
Though dealing with a heavy subject, the film keeps its distance from pure propaganda. Throughout, the story is one of spies, suspense, drama, and morality. For instance, as the STASI rip Dreyman’s house apart looking for his contraband typewriter, the audience is left on the edge of their seat. Gestapo-esque men tear the rooms apart, all the while, Dreyman’s eyes float down toward a creaky floorboard. The audience knows it’s there, but the question is, will the STASI find it. This is the sort of tension the story brings to the screen. Combine that with characters you want to succeed (given the circumstance) you can’t help but fear they’ll be found out. Beyond this, the film also highlights some great “real to life” spy action. With an underground network, Dreyman is able to acquire a contraband typewriter in order to exercise his free speech and speak out against the government, a government that would lock him away (if not worse) for this crime. And as mentioned before, the movie builds characters that we root for. We feel for the characters in this unfortunate situation. We root for them to pull themselves from this oppressive world.