Can and do people ever change? This is one of the key questions posed in Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s brilliant directorial debut, “The Lives of Others”, released in 2006. Two of the key players offer diametrically opposite answers: Bruno Hempf, a minister in the German Democratic Republic of 1984 and former member of the East German Secret Police (“Stasi”), categorically declares: “People don’t change”. On the other hand, we watch the main protagonist, essentially honest Stasi captain Gerd Wiesler, slowly change from being a loyal, unfeeling, cold, and efficient surveillance officer to becoming aware of the corruption and depravity he has been in service of.
The catalyst that provokes this change is art — Wiesler hears a piano sonata; he reads Brecht; he becomes convinced that the artistic abilities of the writer he’s been ordered to spy upon will be destroyed if he’d be arrested and put in prison. Being touched by art, Wiesler allows himself to open up to compassion, integrity, and love.
While all the actors’ performances are excellent, Ulrich Mühe as Gerd Wiesler is truly outstanding. Rarely changing his facial expression beyond subtle movements, his eyes are so expressive, so clear and telling, that his character becomes totally believable. Thanks to Mühe, we’re convinced that among the over 90,000 Stasi employees and around 300,000 informants there must have been a few like Wiesler.
Unfortunately, Ulrich Mühe died on July 22, 2007 of stomach cancer. SPIEGEL online shares some photos of the actor who was born and grew up in East Germany. The events of his life mirror parts of the movie’s plot. He won a number of awards for Best Actor, while the film itself won an Oscar for Best Foreign Film.
Superb cinematography, a tense and suspenseful script, and an amazing music score make this a great and outstanding movie that can be added to the Ten Best Films Ever list.