The Lives of Others

The Lives of Others (German: Das Leben der Anderen) is a 2006 German drama film, marking the feature film debut of filmmaker Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. The plot is about the monitoring of East Berlin residents by agents of the Stasi, the GDR's secret police. It stars Ulrich Mühe as Stasi Captain Gerd Wiesler, Ulrich Tukur as his superior Anton Grubitz, Sebastian Koch as the playwright Georg Dreyman, and Martina Gedeck as Dreyman's lover, a prominent actress named Christa-Maria Sieland.

The Lives of Others
Original German-language poster
Directed byFlorian Henckel von Donnersmarck
Produced by
  • Max Wiedemann
  • Quirin Berg
Written byFlorian Henckel von Donnersmarck
Music by
CinematographyHagen Bogdanski
Edited byPatricia Rommel
Distributed by
Release date
  • 23 March 2006 (2006-03-23)
Running time
137 minutes[1]
Budget$2 million[2]
Box office$77.3 million[2]

The film was released in Germany on 23 March 2006. At the same time, the screenplay was published by Suhrkamp Verlag. The Lives of Others won the 2006 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. The film had earlier won seven Deutscher Filmpreis awards—including those for best film, best director, best screenplay, best actor, and best supporting actor—after setting a new record with 11 nominations. It was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 64th Golden Globe Awards. The Lives of Others cost US$2 million[3] and grossed more than US$77 million worldwide as of November 2007[2]

Released 17 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, marking the end of the East German socialist state, it was the first notable drama film about the subject after a series of comedies such as Good Bye, Lenin! and Sonnenallee. This approach was widely applauded in Germany even as some criticized the humanization of Wiesler's character. The film's authenticity was considered praiseworthy given that the director grew up outside of East Germany and was only 16 when the Berlin Wall fell.[4]


In 1984 East Germany, Stasi Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe), code name HGW XX/7, is ordered to spy on the playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch), who has escaped state scrutiny due to his pro-Communist views and international recognition. Wiesler and his team bug the apartment, set up surveillance equipment in an attic, and begin reporting Dreyman's activities. Wiesler learns that Dreyman has been put under surveillance at the request of the Minister of Culture, Bruno Hempf (Thomas Thieme), who covets Dreyman's girlfriend, actress Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck). After an intervention by Wiesler leads to Dreyman's discovering Sieland's relationship with Hempf, he implores her not to meet him again. Sieland flees to a nearby bar where Wiesler, posing as a fan, urges her to be true to herself. She returns home and reconciles with Dreyman.

At Dreyman's birthday party, his friend Albert Jerska (a blacklisted theatrical director) gives him sheet music for Sonate vom Guten Menschen (Sonata for a Good Man). Shortly afterwards, Jerska hangs himself. Dreyman decides to publish an anonymous article in Der Spiegel, a prominent West German newsweekly. Dreyman's article accuses the state of concealing the country's elevated suicide rates. Since all East German typewriters are registered and identifiable, an editor of Der Spiegel smuggles Dreyman a miniature typewriter with a red ribbon. Dreyman hides the typewriter under a floorboard of his apartment but is seen by Sieland. When Dreyman and his friends feign a defection attempt to determine whether or not his flat is bugged, Wiesler does not alert the border guards or his superior Lt. Col. Anton Grubitz (Ulrich Tukur) and the conspirators believe they are safe.

Dreyman's article is published, angering the East German authorities. The Stasi obtains a copy, but are unable to link it to any registered typewriter. Livid at being rejected by Sieland, Hempf orders Grubitz to arrest her. She is blackmailed into revealing Dreyman's authorship of the article, although when the Stasi search his apartment, they cannot find the typewriter. Grubitz, suspicious that Wiesler has mentioned nothing unusual in his daily reports of the monitoring, orders him to do the follow-up interrogation of Sieland. Wiesler forces Sieland to tell him where the typewriter is hidden.

Grubitz and the Stasi return to Dreyman's apartment. Sieland realizes that Dreyman will know she betrayed him and flees the apartment. When Grubitz removes the floor, the typewriter is gone—Wiesler having removed it before the search team arrived. Unaware of this, Sieland runs to the street and commits suicide by stepping into the path of a truck. Grubitz informs Wiesler that the investigation is over and so is Wiesler's career: His remaining 20 years with the agency will be in Department M, a dead-end position for disgraced agents.

On 9 November 1989, Wiesler is steam-opening letters when a co-worker tells him about the fall of the Berlin Wall. Wiesler silently gets up and leaves the office, inspiring his co-workers to do the same. Two years later, Hempf and Dreyman meet while attending a performance of Dreyman's play. Dreyman asks the former minister why he had never been monitored. Hempf tells him that he had been under full surveillance in 1984. Dreyman searches his apartment and finds the listening devices.

At the Stasi Records Agency, Dreyman reviews the files kept while he was under surveillance. He reads that Sieland was released just before the second search and could not have removed the typewriter. He reaches the final report and sees a fingerprint in red ink and realizes that the officer in charge of his surveillance  Stasi officer HGW XX/7  had concealed his illegal activities, including his authorship of the suicide article, and also removed the typewriter from his apartment. Dreyman tracks down Wiesler, who now works as a postman, but decides not to approach him.

Two years later, Wiesler passes a bookstore window display promoting Dreyman's new novel, Sonate vom Guten Menschen. He goes inside and opens a copy of the book, discovering it is dedicated "To HGW XX/7, in gratitude". Deeply moved, Wiesler buys the book. When the sales clerk asks if he wants it gift-wrapped, he responds, "No. This is for me."



Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's parents were both from East Germany (originally they were from further east; the von Donnersmarcks belonged to Silesian nobility but the region was transferred to Poland from Germany after World War II). He has said that, on visits there as a child before the Berlin Wall fell, he could sense the fear they had as subjects of the state.[5]

He said the idea for the film came to him when he was trying to come up with a scenario for a film class. He was listening to music and recalled Maxim Gorky's saying that Lenin's favorite piece of music was Beethoven's Appassionata. Gorky recounted a discussion with Lenin:

And screwing up his eyes and chuckling, [Lenin] added without mirth:

But I can't listen to music often, it affects my nerves, it makes me want to say sweet nothings and pat the heads of people who, living in a filthy hell, can create such beauty. But today we mustn't pat anyone on the head or we'll get our hand bitten off; we've got to hit them on the heads, hit them without mercy, though in the ideal we are against doing any violence to people. Hm-hm—it's a hellishly difficult office!

Donnersmarck told a New York Times reporter: "I suddenly had this image in my mind of a person sitting in a depressing room with earphones on his head and listening in to what he supposes is the enemy of the state and the enemy of his ideas, and what he is really hearing is beautiful music that touches him. I sat down and in a couple of hours had written the treatment."[3] The screenplay was written during an extended visit to his uncle's monastery, Heiligenkreuz Abbey.[6]

Although the opening scene is set in Hohenschönhausen prison (which is now the site of a memorial dedicated to the victims of Stasi oppression), the film could not be shot there because Hubertus Knabe, the director of the memorial, refused to give Donnersmarck permission. Knabe objected to "making the Stasi man into a hero" and tried to persuade Donnersmarck to change the film. Donnersmarck cited Schindler's List as an example of such a plot development being possible. Knabe's answer: "But that is exactly the difference. There was a Schindler. There was no Wiesler."[7]


The film was received with widespread acclaim. Film aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes reports a 93% "Certified Fresh" rating, based on 142 positive reviews out of 152.[8] A review in Daily Variety by Derek Elley noted the "slightly stylized look" of the movie created by "playing up grays and dour greens, even when using actual locations like the Stasi's onetime HQ in Normannenstrasse."[9] Time magazine's Richard Corliss named the film one of the Top 10 Movies of 2007, ranking it at #2. Corliss praised the film as a "poignant, unsettling thriller."[10][11]

Film critic Roger Ebert gave the film four stars, describing it as "a powerful but quiet film, constructed of hidden thoughts and secret desires."[12] A. O. Scott, reviewing the film in The New York Times, wrote that Lives is well-plotted, and added, "The suspense comes not only from the structure and pacing of the scenes, but also, more deeply, from the sense that even in an oppressive society, individuals are burdened with free will. You never know, from one moment to the next, what course any of the characters will choose."[13] Los Angeles Times movie critic Kenneth Turan agreed that the dramatic tension of the film comes from being "meticulously plotted", and that "it places its key characters in high-stakes predicaments where what they are forced to wager is their talent, their very lives, even their souls." The movie "convincingly demonstrates that when done right, moral and political quandaries can be the most intensely dramatic dilemmas of all."[14]

American commentator John Podhoretz called the film "one of the greatest movies ever made, and certainly the best film of this decade."[15] William F. Buckley, Jr. wrote in his syndicated column that after the film was over, "I turned to my companion and said, 'I think that is the best movie I ever saw.'"[16] John J. Miller of National Review Online named it #1 in his list of 'The Best Conservative Movies' of the last 25 years.[17]

Several critics pointed to the film's subtle building up of details as one of its prime strengths. The film is built "on layers of emotional texture", wrote Stephanie Zacharek in Salon online magazine.[18] Josh Rosenblatt, writing in the Austin Chronicle called the film "a triumph of muted grandeur."[19] Lisa Schwarzbaum, writing in Entertainment Weekly, pointed out that some of the subtlety in the film is due to the fact that "one of the movie's tensest moments take place with the most minimal of action" but that the director still "conveys everything he wants us to know about choice, fear, doubt, cowardice, and heroism."[20] An article in First Things makes a philosophical argument in defense of Wiesler's transformation.[21] The East German dissident songwriter Wolf Biermann was guardedly enthusiastic about the film, writing in a March 2006 article in Die Welt: "The political tone is authentic, I was moved by the plot. But why? Perhaps I was just won over sentimentally, because of the seductive mass of details which look like they were lifted from my own past between the total ban of my work in 1965 and denaturalisation in 1976."[22]

Slavoj Žižek, reviewing the film for In These Times, criticized the film's perceived softpedaling of the oppressiveness of the German Democratic Republic, as well as the structure of the playwright's character, which he thought was not very likely under a hard communist regime.[23] Anna Funder, the author of the book Stasiland, in a review for The Guardian called The Lives of Others a "superb film" despite not being true to reality. She claims that it was not possible for a Stasi operative to have hidden information from superiors because Stasi employees themselves were watched and almost always operated in teams.[7]

In a 2016 BBC poll, critics voted the film the 32nd greatest since 2000.[24]

According to German author Christoph Hein, the movie is loosely based on his life story. In a 2019 article, he recalls that Donnersmarck interviewed him in 2002, and that his name was mentioned in the opening credits at the premiere screening. However, in Hein's opinion the highly dramatized events of the movie bear little resemblance to his life experience, which is why he asked Donnersmarck to delete his name from the credits. In Hein's words, "the movie does not depict the 1980s in the GDR", but is a "scary tale taking place in a fantasy land, comparable to Tolkien's Middle-earth."[25]

Awards and honors

The film and its principals have won numerous awards. Among the most prestigious are:


The Europe List, the largest survey on European culture established that the top three films in European culture are

  1. Roberto Benigni's Life is Beautiful[28]
  2. Donnersmarck's The Lives of Others[28]
  3. Jean-Pierre Jeunet's Amélie[28]

Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Netherlands and Sweden had the film at number 1.[29]


Israeli intelligence controversy

In September 2014, 43 members of the Israeli elite clandestine Unit 8200 wrote a letter to Israel's prime minister and army chief, refusing further service and claiming Israel made "no distinction between Palestinians who are and are not involved in violence" and that information collected "harms innocent people." One of these people named a viewing of The Lives of Others as "the transformational moment".[30][31]

2013 mass surveillance disclosures

The Lives of Others has been referred to in political protests following the 2013 mass surveillance disclosures.[32] Daniel Ellsberg in an interview with Brad Friedman on KPFK/Pacifica Radio republished on stressed the importance of The Lives of Others in light of Edward Snowden's revelations:[33]

ELLSBERG: My knowledge of the Stasi is not very extensive, but it's largely from a movie called The Lives of Others, which won the Oscar for "Best Foreign Film" some years ago. Everybody should get that now. It should be reissued now. Preferably. It has subtitles. In German. But I'd like to see it dubbed so it had a wider audience. What that shows is what life can be with a government that knew as much as the Stasi did then. But if they know  and one thing they can do with that information right now  is to turn people into informants, so that the government has not only the information that people say on electronic devices, they have what they say in the bedroom, because their wife or their whoever  spouse  is an informant. As happened in the movie. That is what did happen in East Germany. And if we were to get that here, and there's the infrastructure for it right now, we will become a democratic republic in the same sense as the East German Democratic Republic.

Film critic and historian Carrie Rickey believes that The Lives of Others was one of two movies that influenced Snowden's actions, the other being the 1974 Francis Ford Coppola film The Conversation, both being about wiretappers troubled by guilt.[34]

Both movies are about the morality of surveillance and the questionable reliability of information harvested  and how listeners can be duped and/or can misinterpret raw data. I would recommend these films to anyone interested in great movies that touch on the issues raised by L'Affaire Snowden.

On 25 June 2013, after revelations of collaboration between NSA and GCHQ, British journalist and documentary maker Sarfraz Manzoor tweeted that "Now would be a good time to pitch a British remake of The Lives of Others."[35] On 16 July 2013, American novelist and frequent cable news commentator Brad Thor stated "At what point did the Obama administration acquire the rights to reenact The Lives of Others?" [36]

French President Nicolas Sarkozy gave an interview in Le Figaro expressing his outrage over being the victim of surveillance himself. He drew a direct comparison to Henckel von Donnersmarck's film: "This is not a scene from that marvellous film "The Lives of Others," about East Germany and the activities of the Stasi. It is not the case of some dictator acting against his political opponents. This is France."[37] Because of this interview, sales of Le Figaro more than doubled.[37]

Libel suit

Donnersmarck and Ulrich Mühe were successfully sued for libel for an interview in which Mühe asserted that his second wife, Jenny Gröllmann, informed on him while they were East German citizens[3] through the six years of their marriage.[38] Mühe's former wife denied the claims, although 254 pages' worth of government records detailed her activities.[18] However, Jenny Gröllmann's real-life controller later claimed he had made up many of the details in the file and that the actress had been unaware that she was speaking to a Stasi agent.[39]

Literature and music

  • Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck: Das Leben der anderen. Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main 2006, ISBN 3-518-45786-1
  • Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck: Das Leben der anderen. Geschwärzte Ausgabe. Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main 2007, ISBN 3-518-45908-2
  • The piano sonata "Sonata for a Good Man", used as the main transformation point of the Stasi Agent Gerd Wiesler, does not carry the name of the composer, as it is original music written for the film by Gabriel Yared.
  • Regarding Beethoven's Appassionata, Lenin is quoted as having said that: "If I keep listening to it, I won't finish the revolution".
  • An excerpt of a 1920 poem by Bertold Brecht, "Reminiscence of Marie A.", is recited in the film in a scene in which Wiesler reads it on his couch, having taken it from Dreyman's desk.
  • The poem "Versuch es" by Wolfgang Borchert is set to music in the film and played as Dreyman writes the article about suicide. Borchert was a playwright whose life was destroyed by his experience of being drafted into the Wehrmacht in World War II and fighting on the Eastern Front.

See also



  1. "DAS LEBEN DER ANDEREN - THE LIVES OF OTHERS". British Board of Film Classification. 27 November 2006. Retrieved 24 November 2012.
  2. "The Lives of Others (2007)". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved 7 July 2011.
  3. Riding, Alan (7 January 2007). "Behind the Berlin Wall, Listening to Life". New York Times. Retrieved 27 July 2007.
  4. Ash, Timothy (31 May 2007). "The Stasi on Our Minds". The New York Review of Books. Retrieved 17 November 2014. It was therefore with particular interest that I recently sat down to watch The Lives of Others, this already celebrated film about the Stasi, made by a West German director who was just sixteen when the Berlin Wall came down.
  5. "Director's Statement". Sony. Retrieved 17 August 2007.
  6. "Ein Oscar "aus" Heiligenkreuz". Heiligenkreuz (in German). Archived from the original on 26 February 2012. Retrieved 2 December 2019.
  7. Fundler, Anna (5 May 2007). "Tyranny of Terror". The Guardian. London.
  8. The Lives of Others The Lives of Others at Rotten Tomatoes
  9. Elley, Derek (11 June 2006). "The Lives of Others". Daily Variety. Retrieved 17 August 2007.
  10. Corliss, Richard; "The 10 Best Movies"; Time magazine; 24 December 2007; Page 40.
  11. Corliss, Richard (9 December 2007). "The 10 Best Movies". Retrieved 7 June 2019.
  12. Ebert, Roger (21 September 2007). "The Lives of Others". Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved 14 July 2010.
  13. Scott, A.O. (9 February 2007). "A Fugue for Good German Men". The New York Times. Retrieved 17 August 2007.
  14. Turan, Kenneth (1 December 2006). "The Lives of Others". The Los Angeles Times. Archived from the original on 9 May 2007. Retrieved 17 August 2007.
  15. Podhoretz, John (25 July 2007). "Ulrich Muhe RIP". National Review Online. Retrieved 17 August 2007.
  16. Buckley, Jr., William F. (23 May 2007). "Great Lives". National Review Online. Retrieved 17 August 2007.
  17. Miller, John (23 February 2009). "The Best Conservative Movies". National Review Online. Retrieved 19 August 2009.
  18. Zacharek, Stephanie (9 February 2007). "The Lives of Others". Retrieved 17 August 2007.
  19. Rosenblatt, Josh (2 March 2007). "The Lives of Others". Austin Chronicle. Retrieved 17 August 2007.
  20. Schwarzbaum, Lisa (2 February 2007). "Movie Review: The Lives of Others (2007)". Entertainment Weekly. Retrieved 17 August 2007.
  21. ""Why Dictators Fear Artists" (2007)". First Things. 23 July 2007. Retrieved 24 August 2007.
  22. Biermann, Wolf (29 March 2006). "The ghosts are leaving the shadows". signandsight. Retrieved 7 June 2019.
  23. Zizek, Slavoj (18 May 2007). "The Dreams of Others". In These Times. Retrieved 17 August 2007.
  24. "The 21st century's 100 greatest films". BBC. 23 August 2016. Retrieved 8 November 2016.
  25. "Warum ich meinen Namen aus "Das Leben der Anderen" löschen ließ" [Why I had my name deleted from 'The Lives of Others']. Süddeutsche Zeitung (in German). 24 January 2019.
  26. "2007 Film Critic Top Ten Lists". Metacritic. Archived from the original on 2 January 2008. Retrieved 5 January 2008.
  27. Germain, David; Christy Lemire (27 December 2007). "'No Country for Old Men' earns nod from AP critics". Columbia Daily Tribune. Associated Press. Archived from the original on 3 January 2008. Retrieved 31 December 2007.
  28. "The self-perception of Europeans in comparison with the perception of other countries". Goethe Institute. Goethe Institute. Archived from the original on 5 July 2013. Retrieved 7 June 2019.
  29. "EUROPE LIST: On the search for a European culture - National results". Goethe Institute. Archived from the original on 5 July 2013. Retrieved 7 June 2019.
  32. "European officials lash out at new NSA spying report". CBS News. AP. 30 June 2013. Retrieved 7 June 2019.
  33. Friedman, Brad (14 June 2013). "Daniel Ellsberg: Edward Snowden is a patriot". Retrieved 7 June 2019.
  34. Hoffmann, Sheila Weller (15 July 2013). "What should Edward 'I'm a brave martyr but I wanna go home' Snowden do now?". The Washington Post.
  35. "quote-sarfaraz". Sarfraz Manzoor. Retrieved 18 August 2013.
  36. "Brad Thor- Lives of Others". Brad Thor. Retrieved 18 August 2013.
  38. Nickerson, Colin (29 May 2006). "German film prompts open debate on Stasi: A forbidden topic captivates nation". The Boston Globe.
  39. "Ulrich Mühe Obituary". The Telegraph. 27 July 2007. Retrieved 30 November 2012.


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