During its years as a Soviet satellite, East Germany created and maintained an organization called the Stasi. Their mission: "to know everything."
Henckel von Donnersmarck's The Lives of Others (winner of the 2007 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film) is a German language film exploring the corrosive and tragic consequences of this type of government activity as it plays out in the lives of a dedicated Stasi officer and his latest targets.
Gerd Wiesler is a true believer in the Stasi motto. Despite his bland appearance, Wiesler is ruthlessly efficient in his job, a fact his Chief relies on, as he wants Wiesler to head up a surveillance operation on playwright Georg Dreyman, believing him to have anti-government views. Christa-Maria is Dreyman's favorite actress and live-in lover.
As he eavesdrops on the couple, Wiesler finds himself sympathizing with their plight. Dreyman is successful and acclaimed and he supports the East German government. However, he opposes the treatment of dissidents, especially his friend Jerska. Once the country's leading stage director, Jerska has been forbidden to work in the theater. At Dreyman's birthday party, Jerska gives him a musical score titled Sonata for a Good Man as a gift. Days later, Jerska commits suicide.
Wiesler listens in as Dreyman is notified of Jerska's suicide, and sits down to play Sonata for a Good Man. He is visibly moved by it. Afterward he meets a boy in an elevator who exclaims his father views the Stasi as bad men. Wiesler's instinct is to track down the father, yet he hesitates at this crucial turning point.
Meanwhile Jerska's suicide finally spurs Dreyman into speaking out against the regime. He arranges to anonymously publish an article on carefully concealed suicide rates in the GDR in a West German magazine.
The importance of this point in the movie is that while Dreyman is rebelling more and more, Wiesler is transforming into a compassionate person–compassion more for himself, to realize his own censorship he's been living with.He begins to protect Dreyman's situation from the Stasi. He lives his minutes, hours and days in fabrication, creating his own play of characters–with the characters being Dreyman, his colleagues and his lover.
I don't want to give away the goods to someone who may want to watch this recent Oscar winner. The beauty and frustration at the end, is that someone who is supposed to be an intellectual (Dreyman) is not seeing his life for what it was, until he's told by one of his former oppressors.
He comes to realize he's maintained a level of freedom literally due to the hands of Wiesler–someone who lived his whole life to this point for others.
Dreyman thanks the former Stasi in a way he best gets his message across – he publishes a novel. Of course it's titled Sonata for a Good Man.
Wiesler sees the book advertised in a bookstore, and finds that it is dedicated to him "with gratitude". He goes to buy the book and, when asked if he wants it gift wrapped, he responds "No, it's for me." The movie freezes on the face of a man who for the first time has something to claim for himself, not others.
Art and Oppression
In the scene Dreyman learns of Jerka's death, he quotes Lenin on Beethoven's Appassionata – "if I keep listening to it, I won't finish the revolution." Dreyman then asks aloud, "can anyone who has truly heard this music be a bad person?"
Inspired to do a little research - I compared interpretations of Beethoven's Appassionata. Myra Hess wins for style (but gets F minor for haircut). The story of Myra Hess well relates to The Lives of Others.
On September 3, 1939, England declared war on Germany. All theaters, cinemas, concert halls, and museums in London were closed for the duration. Within weeks, feeling that the British people were being deprived of music, Myra Hess, one of the world's great pianists, convinced the government to allow her to start a daily recital series at the National gallery in central London. With all the paintings and sculptures removed from the galleries, Myra Hess opened the first concert on October 10, 1939. She abandoned her international career, because she felt it was more important to the war effort to have live concerts to help boost the morale of the people.
Here she is. (I played it about five times in a row.)