A man teaches a roomful of students the art of interrogation. The interrogator is in control; powerful; inexorable.
The man interrogated, after forty hours without sleep, is broken; helpless; ready to confess everything.
How would we behave? If we were the interrogator – or the victim?
Set in 1984 – yes – The Lives of Others explores the relationship between an officer of the East German secret police, the Stasi; the citizens on whom he spies – two artists trying to stay true to their values while keeping out of trouble; and, the corrupt apparatus of the state itself, represented by the sleazy Minister of Culture who (mild spoiler alert) authorises the surveillance in order to eliminate the lover of the woman he fancies.
The quality of The Lives of Others is in the way it combines:
- an intriguing, challenging background – East Germany under communism;
- an authentic “look” allowing the viewer to plunge into the world depicted;
- a powerful story, packed with conflict between characters you care about;
- a series of moral challenges as characters make life-changing decisions in their struggle to survive, inviting you to imagine how you would respond in their shoes;
- keeping the whole experience taut and utterly lacking in self-indulgence: grim but gripping.
The quality matters because, as I noted in my FT piece on the Berlin Wall, it is dangerously easy for people to forget the horror of the totalitarian system which was the Soviet Union and its satellites. The Lives of Others presents East Germany in its prime – yet without any hint of sanctimoniousness.
Its lack of an easy ending is reminiscent of my all-time favourite film, The Third Man (don’t watch the clip if you don’t know the story!), whose screenplay, like George Orwell’s 1984, was written in 1948.
Holly Martin waits for Anna in the Vienna Central Cemetery
Life isn’t easy.
If you fancy an entertaining but worthwhile evening, take a look at The Lives of Others.
Then ask yourself: what would you do if you were the interrogator? Or the victim?