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We here at Trunkworthy have been thinking a lot about the Cold War lately. It may have something to do the rise of the surveillance state, or the opening up of Cuba, or the continued brinksmanship from Russia and North Korea. Or it may be inspired entirely by our binge-watching of The Americans, the FX drama about a family of Commie spies covertly living in suburban D.C. that’s in its third season. It’s a great show (who knew Felicity could kick so much ass?), but seeing all the red hot sex and regular gun battles on the streets of the Nation’s Capitol makes us wonder if The Americans has forgotten the Cold War was supposed to be, you know, cold.
If you are looking for a bit more ice—not to mention verisimilitude—in your Cold War cocktail, you can do no better than 2006’s The Lives of Others. Set chiefly in East Germany in 1984 (it jumps ahead a decade for a surprisingly optimistic coda), the film tells the story of a lonely captain in the Secret Police who launches an operation to aggressively monitor and bug the lives of a celebrated playwright and his actress girlfriend. Why? They seem happy for one, and he’s not; plus, they’re artists. What good could they possibly be up to?
It is startling to watch the way listening in on a couple’s most intimate moments—If anyone you know ever refers to sex as “vigorous lovemaking,” it’s safe to assume they’ve had a past writing field reports for the Stasi—slowly transforms a hardline company man. Legendary East German actor Ulrich Mühe, who experienced the soul-crushing power of the police state firsthand and died just as The Lives of Others was being rightly celebrated as a high mark of international cinema, gives Hauptmann Wiesler a passion that aches beneath the stillness of his wide, expressive state. It’s a masterwork performance.
It takes a little time to fall into The Lives of Other’s distinctly Euro rhythms. The sex is sometimes sad (in the case of Wiesler’s visit with a Soviet-era prostitute, quite tragic) and this is the rare, if only, political thriller where a gun is never even produced, much less fired. Here, the explosive piece of hardware is an unregistered portable typewriter, hidden in floorboards and used to chronicle GDR’s rising suicide rate. It becomes the central piece that the film’s thrilling final hour revolves around, its runny red-ink ribbon a powerful symbol of the need for personal expression even, or especially, in the most repressive of environments.
A critics’ favorite and a film with a treasure trove of awards to its name, including the 2006 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, The Lives of Others has been widely and dutifully celebrated. But it still deserves Trunkworthy status as a movie that is both prescient and timely, not just in light of The Americans, but in terms of the troubling questions brought forward by Edward Snowden and one of the year’s best documentaries, the Oscar nominated Citizenfour. It’s a reminder not only of the horrors of state surveillance run amok, but more movingly, of humanity’s ability to persevere even in history’s darkest corners.