The East German Stasi were cavemen compared to the NSA. Their low-tech and labor-intensive bugging of individuals’ apartments seems crude and childish compared to the NSA’s wholesale monitoring of the Internet. Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s 2006 film, The Lives of Others is an un-nostalgic trip back to those more primitive days of government spying.
Captain Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe) is a Stasi agent who has been assigned to spy on Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) a highly regarded East German playwright whom the Culture Minister, Minister Bruno Hempf (Thomas Thieme), suspects of having disloyal thoughts. The Stasi plant listening devices in the apartment that Dreyman shares with Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck). Wiesler proceeds to listen in on their private conversations. At the beginning of the film, Hempf tells Wiesler that “people don’t change”. (This is about as un-Marxist a statement as one could possibly make.) Yet as Wiesler learns about the tender relationship between Georg and Christa-Maria and about Georg’s grief over the suicide of a friend who was blacklisted by the government, he begins to change. He ends up falsifying his records to conceal the fact that Georg is planning to smuggle a document out of the country.
The Lives of Others is an understated film that creates suspense through the emotional states of the characters. It is also a film that affirms the possibility of human redemption. I consider it one of the best films of the last decade.
The film critic, Carrie Rickey, has claimed that The Lives of Others influenced Edward Snowden, but I have not been able to find any statements by Snowden that confirm this. In a way, though, this film does bear a similarity to the Snowden case, in that it depicts a government spy who comes to realize the wrongness of what he is doing.