Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck (Germany, 1973) debuted with
Das Leben der Anderen/ The Lives of Others (2006).
In East Germany wnder the Communist regime, a man is being interrogated by
the secret police that wants to find out who helped a friend of his escape
to the West. The man keeps repeating that he knows nothing.
A professor is teaching to an audience of young people: the lesson is precisely
about that interrogation (that obviously happened in the past) and the students
can hear the interrogation from a tape. The professor explains the techniques
employed by the interrogator and we see the interrogator carrying them out
until the suspect breaks up and confesses. The lesson is over. The students
leave. The head of the department walks in and invites the professor to
theater. The play is by a famous playwright. The professor is told by his boss
that the playwright is clean but, at the end of the play, the experienced
professor is suspicious. Later the minister himself seems to suspect something
and the boss, in order to please him, concurs. The professor sees the
playwright, Georg, hug and kiss the main actress, Christa-Maria.
The professor, Gerd, who is a captain in the secret services, volunteers to be
in charge of spying on the playwright (who has just insisted with the
minister to forgive his old director, blacklisted for anti-socialist
statements). The captain, who lives a lonely miserable existence in one of
the many apartments of a high-rise building, leads a team into the house
of the playwright that installs all sorts of devices. In the meantime,
Georg is visiting his beloved director, Albert, now forced out of work by the
Georg lives with his girlfriend and actress Christa-Maria, who is organizing
his birthday party. She finds an excuse to distract him because she has to
take a pill. At the party Albert sits by himself, uncomfortable to mix with
successful people after so many years of inaction. A friend of Georg, Paul,
confronts the new director, accusing him of having obtained the job by
collaborating with the secret services. Georg stops him. Paul leaves
accusing Georg of being a coward. The captain is alone in the dark,
listening to all the conversations. It's his life.
He is disciplined and accurate. His boss tells him that he might be a bit
too accurate: he reported that Christa was taken home by a car of the ministery,
something that could embarrass the minister. During lunch Gerd sits among
the ordinary workers, despite the fact that he's entitled to the section for
managers. His boss overhears a worker tell a joke about the chairman of the
party: instead of punishing the worker, he tells one himself. Gerd is instead
faithful to the ideals of socialism.
One night Christa is approached in the street by a limo. A man invites her
inside, complaining that she missed their previous appointment. It's the
minister, who immediately proceeds to undress her and kiss her, despite
her coldness. Then the limo drops her off in front of Georg's house.
Gerd is watching and recognizes the minister's car. He decides to provoke
Georg: Gerd remotely simulates the door bell so that Georg walks downstairs
to open the gate and sees Christa come out of the minister's car.
After a shower she asks him to hug her. He doesn't confront her.
At home Gerd receives the quick visit of a prostitute who has a tight schedule.
Then he reads a book of Brecht poems that he took from Georg's place (ironically
the same book that Albert the dissident was reading).
Georg learns that Paul has been refused permission to travel to the West for
his work and that Albert has hanged himself. Georg plays the piano sonata that
Albert composed, and Gerd listens, still coldly methodical but somehow
intrigued by the music.
Gerd is listening when Georg begs Christa not to go out and tells her that
he knows of her affair with the minister and of her medications. Christa
replies that he too sleeps with "them", that he too prostitutes himself to
the system. Hearing their conversation in which the socialist system is
described as an evil system greatly disturbs the simple obedient idealist Gerd.
At the end of his shift, Gerd
walks into a bar and starts drinking. Minutes later Christa walks in: she
doesn't know him but he knows her. She is visibly torn. He approaches her
introducing himself as her "audience" (and he literally is) and then says
words that reinforce what Georg was telling her. She walks out and Gerd
doesn't know whether she's going to the minister's or back home to Georg's.
When Gerd resumes his shift, he reads the report written by his comrade that
reveals what happened: Christa came back to the apartment and made love to
Georg. She ditched the minister. Gerd is silently happy.
At Albert's funeral Georg meets Paul again. Georg is now determined to act,
to stop prostituting himself. Paul knows that his own apartment is bugged so
he asks Georg to meet in a park. Georg hands me two pages that he wants to
be published in the West. Paul offers to help him. Georg insists that his
own apartment is not bugged. Paul comes up with an idea to find out: friends
meet at Georg's place and discuss a plan to smuggle Paul into the West at
a specific border point. The idea is that the secret service, if they are
tapping Georg's place, will search the car at that border post. Gerd is in
fact listening and his instinct would be to call the border post, but then
he hangs up: his conscience forces him to pretend that he didn't listen.
The fact that no border inspection takes place convinces Georg and Paul
that the secret services are not spying on Georg. Then Gerd can hear their
subversive plans in detail. He writes them down accurately and prepares
a lengthy report that will certainly destroy Georg's career. But then he
just cannot deliver it to his boss. Instead, he asks to reduce the level
What Georg writes and discusses with Paul about the communist system
is a revelation to Gerd himself: for the first time he can see the evil
behind the whole system. In his reports Gerd writes that Georg is writing
a new play. He doesn't mention that Georg is using a hidden typewriter
(provided by a Western publisher) to write an anti-communist article.
Thanks to Gerd's cover-up (unknown to Georg), Georg's article
is printed in the West. Gerd's boss is now under pressure to find out who
wrote it. It's an article on suicides that is causing great embarrassment.
In the meantime the minister who has been dumped by Christa wants Gerd's boss
to ruin Christa's career: the minister tells him where Christa gets her illegal
medications, and minutes later the agents arrest her. Christa is terrified
by the prospect of interrogation and prison. She is told that there is only
one way she can save yourself: if they help her find out who wrote the
article on suicides. Hours later the secret police enter Georg's apartment
to carry out a search. Gerd watches in disbelief on his screens.
They are looking for the typewriter that would confirm he's the writer
but they cannot find it.
Later Georg and his friends meet in the park: everybody thinks it was Christa
who turned him in. But Georg realizes that they did not search the place where
the typewriter is hidden: if Christa sent them, then Christa made sure that
they would not search there and therefore they would not find anything.
Christa protected him.
Gerd's boss asks Gerd himself, the master of interrogations, to interrogate
Christa, and then watches from behind an invisible screen. This time Christa
confesses where the typewriter is hidden. Gerd knows that this time she
told them everything. Gerd's boss is satisfied and congratulates Christa for
becoming an informer (and slips her medications into her pocket). However,
by the time Georg gets home, Gerd has already entered his apartment and
removed the typewriter. Christa has become an informer of the system, but
Gerd has become a silent informer of the resistance, and the two neutralize
each other. Christa walks home and avoids talking to Georg. The secret police
arrive and search the hiding place but find nothing. Christa, thinking they
found the typewriter, runs outside and jumps in front of a truck. Gerd is the
first one to arrive on the scene and whispers to her that he removed the
object. It's too late. Christa dies. Georg runs outside and hugs her dead
body crying for forgiveness (thinking that she is the one who removed the
typewriter and therefore saved him).
This time Gerd's boss senses the truth. Gerd is sentenced to a labor camp,
where he spends several years until the regime collapses and East Germany is
reunited with West Germany. Then at a performance of his last play Georg meets
the former minister. Georg asks him to clear a mystery for him: why wasn't
he under surveillance like all the other intellectuals. The minister replies
that he was. The mystery thickens when Georg goes home and finds all the wires
that were hidden behind switches and light bulbs, the evidence that he was
indeed under permanent and complete surveillance. He then asks to see his
file at the archives of the secret police, that are now open to the public.
By reading it, he learns that Christa betrayed him and also learns that
the agent who was spying on him consistently lied about his true activities.
He asks for his name and looks for him. Gerd has become a humble postman.
Georg finds him but decides not to talk to him.
Years later Gerd sees Georg's new book advertised in a bookshop's window
and enters to browse a few pages. He sees that the book is dedicated to
There is a lot of deception going on, and not only between the system and
the dissidents, between the spy and the spied, the woman and the man.
It's the camera itself that is deceiving. We often see something indirectly,
like at the beginning when we think we are witnessing an interrogation and
we're actually witnessing a lecture.
On the other hand this is the story, or better the two stories, of two men
who grow up to stand up to their responsibility towards society. These are
two parallel stories of two men who never meet but are united by the destiny
to fight for what is right. They both mature as the story progresses. These
are two moral and political educations. One if above the other, in that he
knows about the other and protects him: and he is the one working within
the system. Then there is a woman, a humble Mary Magdalene who used to be
a prostitute and briefly becomes a martyr before becoming a Judas.
There are also two more parallel stories, the stories of the two traitors:
the woman of the dissident becomes an informer for the system while the
man of the system has become a friend of the dissidents. They neutralize
each other, but at a terrible cost: death for her and prison for him.
Each of the three characters undergoes a personal transformation. Both the
good and the evil one help the third one achieve his mission.
The Tourist (2010) is instead a mediocre thriller.
Never Look Away (2018)