Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006

The Life of Others


After I graduated from university at the end of 1989, I left South Africa and went travelling. My stated goals were to bring home a piece of the Berlin Wall and Christian Slater. It was quite something launching myself into the world in 1990, a world where Nelson Mandela had been released and the Berlin Wall had fallen, a world of thrilling potential and opportunity. I came home without visiting Berlin, because I ran out of money in Italy after ten months of waitressing and travelling, and I needed to start my journalism degree. I also came home without Christian Slater, but brought with me instead an English boyfriend who horrified everyone by hitch-hiking across South Africa alone, while carrying all his belongings in a plastic Spar packet.

While my need to be around dubious men has disappeared, I have always nursed the dream of Berlin and I finally got there last year in April. Since then I have been back three times, and I will continue to go at every opportunity I get because there is something about Berlin that makes me feel alive. As a South African, I think I relate to a city that is coming to terms with its divided past. Just one walk around the Jewish Museum demonstrates how Berlin looks backward with respect, sensitivity and compassion. At the same time, the many new buildings in the city, the sites with their looming cranes, and empty lots still waiting for development are testament to the city’s future. The Berlin of right now makes the word vibrant redundant; it is pulsing yet relaxed, colourful but with bleak pockets, hysterically busy yet relaxed, edgy but friendly. Berlin is not always beautiful, but it is welcoming and it doesn’t judge. I feel at home there, more than anywhere else in Germany, a country that has been good to me but is often still alien.

Today is Germany’s 18th day of National Unity, a public holiday celebrating the country’s reunification. According to Wikipedia, an alternative day to celebrate would have been November 9, the day the Wall came down in 1989. November 9 has other good resonances for Germans – it coincides with the anniversary of founding of the Weimar Republic in 1918 and with the defeat of Hitler’s first coup in 1923. However, November 9 was also the anniversary of Kristalnacht, so the day was considered inappropriate for a national holiday. This year the Tag der Deutschen Einheit is being celebrated in Hamburg, but Berlin will always remain the symbol of the Cold War, the division between East and West and the fall of communism.

All this is a long preamble to a movie I want to talk about: the Oscar-winning Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others). Directed by the spectacularly named Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, the film is set in East Berlin in 1984 and centres on a Stasi loyalist Gerd Wiesler who is detailed with spying on playwright Georg Dreyman and his lover, the actress Christa-Maria Sieland. The pair, who are suspected of disloyalty to the state, are placed under 24-hour surveillance, their every word and deed recorded, right down to when and how they have sex. Wiesler, whose life is dedicated to the Stasi and who returns every night to his own depressingly empty life, slowly grows fond of the pair on whom he’s spying. Their vivid love-life throws his own sad use of prostitutes into relief, and their warm, friendly home makes his lonely flat seem increasingly cold. Theirs is a life of literature, love and ideas, which they manage to enjoy despite the Stasi net that tightens around them.

After the suicide of another playwright whose right to work has been taken away by the State, Georg and some companions write an article on East German control of the arts, which they smuggle to the West for publication. Wiesler is aware of what they are doing, but is torn: does he reveal their actions to his Stasi bosses in exchange for promotion, or does he protect the people to whom he is becoming more attached? The decision he makes sets in motion a series of events, some of them tragic, others redemptive.

Das Leben des Anderen is a slow burner, but it is gripping. Ulrich Mühe plays Wiesler with a buttoned-up, blank intensity, conveying his volte-face in creeping degrees. Sebastian Koch and Martina Gedeck are excellent as the lovers, while Ulrich Tukur as Wiesler’s boss is in turns ebullient and despicable. It’s a small, strong ensemble cast.

In many other Berlin movies (Wings of Desire, Goodbye Lenin, Lola Runs), the city also plays a starring role. It must be hard for a director to resist shots of the iconic Brandenburg Gates, the TV Tower or Checkpoint Charlie, but Henckel von Donnersmark does, restricting the action to the inside and outside of Georg’s flat, Wiesler’s apartment, one pub, a couple of theaters and some anonymous Stasi buildings. I don’t know whether these were artistic or budgetary restrictions, but they work. By keeping the locations intimate, and avoiding the sweeping views of Berlin, he recreates the intense, cloying atmosphere of late-era East Germany, where neighbours spied on neighbours and no-one was to be trusted. There are no ecstatic Wall-breaking scenes, just a voice-over on the radio that underscores how the fall of the Wall, while symbolic for the world, was for Berliners an intensely personal event.

Das Leben der Anderen is a testament to the human spirit. In the bleak days of surveillance, spying and thought control, it shows how there will always be those who do not allow their spirits to be broken, and who pursue the dream of free speech and liberation on behalf of the greater population. Today, in Germany, those people now live free, and we give thanks for that. They have earned their freedom. As a citizen of a land where freedom is still new, that speaks volumes to me.

Author: charlotteotter

Novelist, feminist, crime writer

14 thoughts on “The Life of Others

  1. I was not prepared for the way Berlin affected me when I was given the opportunity to visit this beautiful city. I spoke to someone who had been able to travel from West to East, during the Cold War, and he described it as moving from a place of colour into a place of greyness. “Freedom” is a word many use flippantly without realising the magnitude of it’s meaning.

  2. Another one to add to the Netflix queue!

    I’ve edited a few books over the last year about German history, and what stuck in my mind was one about gender issues that spoke to the better opportunities for women in terms of job parity in East Germany. So it’s interesting to me to think about how stereotyped (and not that those images are also accurate) the view of the gray, lifeless East is. That said, I loved Goodbye, Lenin, Wings of Desire and also White, which though centered in Poland, reminds me of that gray Eastern concept.

    We just watched Persepolis, which I recommend. I remember many families moving from Iran to my hometown during the fall of the Shah, and how they desperately wanted to divorce themselves from the Western image of their home — so much so that they preferred to be called “Persian” because “Iranian” had such bad connotations in the US then.

  3. That should be, “not that those images *aren’t* also accurate.”

  4. I wish I could write as well as you.

  5. The film featured on the art circuit last year in South Africa. After the credits everybody sat for a moment, silent, touched by its stark beauty. A very successful story, in my opinion!

    The very last scenes, where the “Sonata for a Good Man” is published and dedicated to the agent, wow, these are the most touching to me, emphasizing how much we finally influence each other’s lives.

    (And Berlin truly sounds like a metaphor for life, doesn’t it, especially for a South African holding the past and the future in each hand.)

  6. I enjoyed Ulrich Mühe’s performance in that film and was saddened to hear of his death not long after that film came out. Here’s a link to other works he had a role in:

  7. Great review of a film I loved! You make me want to go to Berlin right away.

  8. I loved this film too, but never went to Berlin. It’s very high on my destination list when I’ll eventually address my fears about travelling by plane with a baby.

  9. I *just* downloaded this movie a couple days ago and hope to watch it tonight. It’s great to read such a positive review.

  10. Gosh, I remember Wings of Desire, though I don’t know where my copy of that went. I love movies that make cities the objects of the camera’s desire. Wonderful review, Charlotte, but pity about Christian Slater.

  11. Fantastic film. A must-see for anyone interested in Germany history, East Germany, the Stasi, or even present day Berlin. How important and wicked a copy of the West German Spiegel could be. Martina Gedeck is a 70s Garbo. Ulrich Mühe, the actor who played the spy, died of cancer shortly after Das Leben Der Anderen won an Oscar for best foreign film. I nearly borrowed it from the video shop tonight. Must watch it again. Fantastic film.

  12. Here’s an interview with Martina Gedeck about her new film ‘Baader-Meinhof Komplex’ (about the RAF) in a german personality magazine: Die freie Radikale

  13. You are right – I so admire the way that Germans sensitively preserve their past (great as the temptation must sometimes be to erase chunks of it) and in ways that encourage you to reflect on the past and the future. In particular, I can think of the “rotten tooth” church and the Neue Synagogue, where the facade has been restored but much of the rest of the building exists only as a ghost with the foundations market with stones on an empty gravel yard. I also found the Jewish Museum to be very moving, and the “voids”, particularly the one where the floor was covered with metal faces, were incredibly powerful and will always remain with me.

  14. And I meant to say… a friend of mine also went travelling ( in 1994 though) and came back with a boyfriend who decided to flaunt his working class background as aggressively as possible: by wearing those dark blue work overalls everywhere, including a beach holiday in Plett. Oi vay.

    I, on the other hand, managed quite nicely to pick up my smorgasbord of unsuitable men in the bars and clubs of Port Elizabeth 😉

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