Vera Wollenberger sat before me in a dark room, as shattered a human being as I ever hope to meet. On that cold morning in Berlin in 1992, she was still reeling from the discovery that the informer who had spent years reporting to the East German secret police every detail of her anti-government activities -- the snitch she knew of only by the code name "Donald" -- was in fact her husband, Knud.
I could barely make out her words as Wollenberger defended her husband as a loving and committed father. For what he had done to her, for the ultimate betrayal, she had no words.
In four years of reporting on the end of communism in central Europe, I found few people who could effectively describe the depth of the oppression that that system created through its vast, insidious network of spies and informers. Now, almost two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Vera Lengsfeld -- she dropped her ex-husband and his name -- says that "The Lives of Others," a leading contender for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, is the first work that gets at how the relentless, merciless machinery of East German state surveillance "systematically destroyed the personality." She has seen the movie several times and intends to see it again.
"The Lives of Others," which opens in Washington on Friday, is a compelling spy thriller, a love story, a bracing character study and a remarkably accurate depiction of an emotionally barren reality.
Director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's movie follows the journey of secret police Capt. Gerd Wiesler, a true believer who is so committed to the official ideology that he is blind to his country's pathetic shortcomings. In the mid-1980s, the Stasi command assigns Wiesler to spy on a famous writer and his actress girlfriend. But when the good soldier learns that his mission is driven not by evidence that the artists are disloyal to the regime but by a government minister's lust for the actress, Wiesler's absolute loyalty to the state begins to waver. Still, the captain -- played by Ulrich Muehe, whose real-life wife worked as an informant for the Stasi -- proceeds with his work, monitoring the couple's every word and action.
"There is not a single physical blow" in the movie, von Donnersmarck said in a recent conversation at the Georgetown Ritz-Carlton. "Some people felt I should have described the Stasi as a kind of second-rate Gestapo, with physical torture and beatings, and certainly those things happened. But I wanted to put a face to the deeper brutality, the sense the Stasi officers had that they were an elite -- selected, recruited for this work and therefore able to intimidate anyone."
Von Donnersmarck, the son of two East Germans, grew up in West Germany and New York and went to Oxford. The patrician name, the refined résumé and his 6-foot-9 stature create an imposing image, but the director turns out to be self-effacing and eager to cut through the ceremony that surrounds a major studio release. Von Donnersmarck wants to talk about the mechanics of oppression, the power of art, and the great American conspiracy thrillers of the 1970s that he studied closely before making this, his first feature.
In "The Conversation," "The Parallax View," "Three Days of the Condor" and "All the President's Men," individuals armed only with disconnected shreds of truth must decide whether to take on the faceless, corrupt power of the state. Just as those searing Hollywood movies grappled with the disorienting changes wrought by the 1960s culture wars, "The Lives of Others" steps into the continuing struggle in eastern Germany and other formerly communist countries over the psychological warfare that kept dictatorships in command until the revolutions of 1989.
Most efforts by eastern Germans to address their past have tended toward nostalgia or comedy, such as "Good Bye Lenin!," the 2003 movie that laments the loss of the camaraderie that many easterners shared in reaction to omnipresent state control.
Von Donnersmarck pushes aside nostalgia and homes in on the power of ideology to blind people to human frailties and desires. An ideologue "shuts his heart toward feeling," the director says. "Osama bin Laden has vowed the destruction of the United States and he shuts off any compassion toward the feelings of his victims. The communist has decided to build a socialist paradise on Earth and he shuts himself off to anything else."
In the movie, a series of intrusions into Wiesler's strict ideology corrodes his warrior-monk persona. The intrusions come mainly in the form of art--a performance of theater, a piece of music. The director challenged composer Gabriel Yared ("The English Patient," "The Talented Mr. Ripley") to "imagine that you can travel to 1933 and meet Hitler before he commits any of his atrocities. All you can do is play him your new piece of music. What will that piece of music be?"
The director's belief in the power of music stems from a famous line Lenin uttered upon hearing Beethoven's "Appassionata" Sonata: "What astonishing, superhuman music! I want to say sweet, silly things and pat the heads of people who, living in a filthy hell, can create such beauty." But Lenin does not permit himself such feelings: "One can't pat anyone on the head nowadays, they might bite your hand off. They ought to be beaten on the head, beaten mercilessly."
Von Donnersmarck's message is at once universal and bracingly German: "In German folklore," he says, "there are characters who have an invisibility cape and that invisibility gives the wearer enormous power. I know if I had one, I wouldn't throw it away in horror -- I would use it. The Stasi had that invisibility cape. As long as there is power, people will abuse it."