The Lives of Others traces the gradual disillusionment of Captain Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe), a highly skilled officer who works for the Stasi, East Germany’s all-powerful secret police. The changing behaviour of Wiesler is essential to the narrative progression of The Lives of Others.
The life of Wiesler is all about the lives of others. He is a devoted member of the Stasi, an organisation that keeps the country’s citizens under the most stringent surveillance. We see him first as an authority figure, lecturing operatives on the practice of interrogation, and in flashback we watch him practising what he preaches, using sleep deprivation to elicit the confession he wants to hear. Wiesler has an austere style and a single-minded approach, whether on or off duty. He’s a true believer in the state and in his job, a literal-minded, efficient operative who is fastidious about detail. His colleagues are nowhere near as thorough; his superiors are far more cynical. Yet – and it’s a little hard to believe that this hasn’t happened before, in a world in which surveillance is an almost compulsive state practice and blackmail and betrayal are accepted modes of behaviour – he’s a little shocked to discover that there’s an ulterior motive to the latest assignment he is handed.
Wiesler is given the job of collecting evidence against the famous playwright Georg Dreyman. The job begins after Lieutenant Colonel Anton Grubitz (Ulrich Tukur), a former classmate of Wiesler’s who now heads the Culture Department at the State Security, invites Wiesler to accompany him to the premiere of the new play by Dreyman, also attended by Minister Bruno Hempf (Thomas Thieme). Minister Hempf tells Grubitz that he has doubts about the successful playwright’s loyalty to the SED, the ruling Socialist Unity Party, and implies that he would approve of a full-scale surveillance operation. Grubitz, eager to boost his own political future, entrusts the monitoring, or “Operative Procedure,” to Wiesler, who promises to oversee the case personally. Wiesler is also convinced that Dreyman cannot possibly be as loyal to the Party as has always been assumed.
However, Hempf’s distrust of Dreyman is not politically motivated. Hempf cannot take his eyes off the attractive lead actress Christa-Maria Sieland, Dreyman’s girlfriend. While Dreyman is away from their home, his apartment is systematically bugged. A neighbour who notices the operation is forced to keep silent by a personal threat. Wiesler sets up his surveillance headquarters in the attic of Dreyman’s apartment building, thus beginning Wiesler’s cold and calculating observation of the lives of the playwright and his girlfriend.
At first Weisler’s observations show that, unlike most of his artistic peers, Dreyman does not display any outwardly contempt for the GDR. Dreyman’s position slowly changes however, as he discovers that Christa-Maria has been pressured into a sexual relationship with Minister Hempf. When his close friend, theatre director Albert Jerska (Volkmar Kleinert) is driven to suicide after seven years of unofficial “blacklisting” by the government, Dreyman can no longer remain silent about the GDR. Now determined to alert the outside world about the conditions of life under the GDR, he begins a plot to place an article with the famous West German publication Der Spiegel, exposing the GDR’s policy of covering up the high suicide rates under the regime.
Wiesler, who has been monitoring all of Dreyman’s activities, finally has the proof he needs to destroy his subject and to serve the GDR by foiling Dreyman’s plot. But Wiesler’s unemotional façade is showing signs of erosion. While he observes the day-to-day life of Dreyman and Christa-Maria, he begins to be drawn into their world, which puts his own position as an impartial agent of the GDR into question. His immersion in “the lives of others,” in love, literature and freethinking, also makes Wiesler acutely aware of the shortfalls of his own existence.
When we first meet Wiesler and Dreyman we can understand them as opposites. Dreyman is a radical playwright and Wiesler is a member of the Stasi Party and as such works to police the output of people such as Dreyman. However by the end of the film we see that these characters have become less polarised, and through Wiesler’s actions the two men have an important connection. As Wiesler becomes more and more invested in his act of surveillance, a curious thing happens. He becomes an actor rather than an observer. Mühe, in subtle ways, shows a transformation in the body language of his character. It almost seems as if the relationship between the Stasi operative and his subject is reversed. Strangely, Wiesler the secret policeman becomes a creative figure, while the Dreyman takes on the role of the covert operator, the figure embroiled in secrecy and concealment. The consequences, however, are not what Wiesler intends them to be: control is an illusion.