A VIEW FROM THE GLOOMY SIDE
The bald, wiry man walks fast and erect. His alert eyes dart around, sensitive to the slightest movement. His gray jacket and trousers almost perfectly blend in with the dull, gray gloominess of the environment around him. He is Captain Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler, an official working for the Stasi, the ubiquitous communist presence in East Germany, the classic eavesdropping Big Brother of a dark age. The Stasi was perhaps the most effective political organisation that ever infiltrated the affairs of common citizens; at one point, there was one active Stasi officer for every fifty citizens, more than at any other time and under any other regime. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, thousands of East German citizens were devastated to find out that their friends, brothers, spouses, and teachers had been eavesdropping on them on behalf of the Stasi. The real life actor who plays Wiesler, Ulrich Muhe, was one of them.
Wiesler is a reconnaisance and interrogation officer for the Stasi. He has one job; to spy and eavesdrop on suspected subversives, people who are defined as subversives by the Stasi essentially on their whims. He taps their phones, wires their apartments when they are out, and casually bullies neighbours into not uttering a word about these activites if they come to notice. And he is absolutely stunning at his job, he is professionalism exemplified. He cares nothing about sitting at a desk, headphones strapped to his ear, twelve hours a day in a shoddy and claustrophobic room, listening to and noting down each and every conversation of ordinary citizens, including their most intimate ones.
This nondescript, dull and lonely Stasi officer, is nonetheless the hero of The Lives of Others, which won the Oscar award for best foreign film. The movie reminded me starkly of what it is that many of our Bollywood productions lack; that key quality of understatement that is many times more effective than any degree of overstatement. The Lives of Others is a good testament to this quality. One does not need to evoke melodrama, if the situation is so riveting or depressing so as to be the epitome of melodrama. The political and social situation in East Germany in 1984, to say the least, was just like that.
Wiesler's job is to spy on a free-thinking East German writer and playwright, loved by the people but mistrusted by some members in the upper echelon of the political establishment. The writer lives with his girlfriend, who often plays the lead role in his plays. Beneath her happy personal life with the writer, she is living a life of hell; she has become so used to politicians asking her for sexual favours in return for her and her boyfriend's safety, that she uses herself as a standard tool in a toolbox of ploys to bribe government officials and wriggle out of potentially dangerous situations. She hates doing this, but puts on a brave face to get along with life, and to enjoy the simple pleasures of life that she and the writer can afford.
Wiesler's assignment goes on smoothly. He is extraordinarily meticulous about his job, keeping detailed notes about every conversation that the writer and his liberal friends have. At the same time, his life is loneliness exemplified. He has no family, no friends, works twelve hours a day alone in a dark, cramped room, and the only companionship for him is a prostitute who visits him occassionally, faithfully adhering to her strict schedule; if he wants to spend some time with her just talking and doing nothing else, he will nevertheless have to make sure he books her for more time on the next occasion. Wiesler's life is so utterly lonely, that we cannot help but feel the utmost pity for him right from the beginning, notwithstanding his sinister Stasi personality.
But somwhere in the middle of his admirable eavesdropping career, something happens to Wiesler; he has a change of heart. However, I have not given away the secret of the movie, because in this particular case, it's the details that matter. He reailises the web of deception, interrogation, and oppression of which he is a part. He realises the plight of ordinary people who are constantly and shamelessly subjected to surveillance, essentially because his Stasi masters want to have some fun. And he decides that in his own way, he is going to try to do something to help. The Lives of Others is his story. It is the story of how the transformation of one man can provide a paradigm for change. In the end, Wiesler is somewhat vindicated, but one still cannot stop pitying him. This pity is actually pity for the whole rubric of communism, from which Wiesler nonetheless emerges as a well-spring of life and conscience.
All the actors have done fine jobs, underplaying their emotions to the right degree. But again, Muhe outshines the others. Perhaps he carries with him the scars of his real life knowledge of his friends working for the Stasi. The one minor flaw with the movie is that his transformation from a dedicated and disciplined, professional Stasi officer to a sympathetic conscientious man who puts his career and life at stake, is a little too fast. But that is really what one can do in an hour and a half.
Director Florian von Donnersmarck, more than anything else, conveys the sheer depressing nature of ordinary life under communism exceedingly well. The Poland of 1984 may not have been the 1930s Russia of Lavrenti Beria, where your father and mother would disappear overnight. It seems to be more civilised on the face of it. But it rightly and tellingly demonstrates a system where growth has been suspended, where the majority of the population is unhappy, and lives in a lethargy of complacency and frustration that has been induced like opium by the political fabric of the country. More than anything else, the movie is a masterful showcase of the sheer gloominess that accompanies a totalitarian regime of any kind, and especially a communist regime. This gloominess is suicidal gloominess, and it's seen everywhere, in the shops and bars, in the opera and the cinema, and most importantly in the souls of the denizens of such a country. Without any incentives, the will of the nation, its people, and even its rulers, has ground to a halt. All that remains is a land with ludicrous rhetoric and idealism, and people living like zombies under a miasma of the prospects of a dead future and lost hopes. And dull streets, very dull streets. And this was 1984, not more than twenty years ago.