If you have watched Equilibrium, V for Vendetta, or read 1984 by George Orwell, you may have a good idea already of where I am going with this. But only an idea, mind you! There are similarities in theme, (we still haven’t stopped making movies on authoritarian societies, especially those built on socialistic or communistic ideals, and how they are brought down by maverick protagonist who call themselves revolutionaries), but this is not about violent, nihilistic revolutions, gory war scenes, or really out-of-the-box execution and torture methods.
This is a story that simmers on personal conflicts, love, betrayal, sacrifice, fortitude and envy without exploding with excessive spatterings of rage, revenge, malice and cataclysmic annihilation. Even with the lack of extremes this movie manages to stay clear of all the clichés (normally associated with movies of this genre) and builds a new dimension that deals with elements of imprisonment (behind the bars of socialism), surrender, sacrifice and intellectual/emotional enlightenment in a very humane way.
East Berlin (called the GDR in the pre-wall, socialist era in 1984), under the rule of socialist forces, keeps tight surveillance on its citizens via Stasi, its police force, and deals harshly with those that try to defect, or assist in defection of others, to the west. In the first scene, a Stasi police member Gerd Wiesler, is demonstrating to his students via a recorded session of a convict’s interrogation, the Stasi procedures for dealing with the dissenters. Upon being questioned by one of the students regarding the morality of the methods adopted by Stasi, Wiesler marks in his report card, perhaps indicating that the cadet is too inquisitive to be trustworthy.
Grubitz, Wiesler’s old classmate and his senior in the Stasi regime, invites him for a play by a famous director Geord Dreyman, starring his gorgeous girlfriend, Christa-Maria Seiland – an actress par excellence. Weisler is convinced that deep down Dreyman is not a true socialist and wants to keep an eye on him. He is not the only one, as many in the Stasi top brass consider the artists to be rather unreliable in terms of their loyalties to the socialist state, and predilection to the west. One of them however, the cultural Minister Bruno Hempf, has different reasons for hating Dreyman – he is in love with Christa Maria. Under the guise of state security, Hempf orders Grubitz to monitor Dreyman and incarcerate him at any cost.
Weisler bugs Dreyman’s apartment to keep track of his activities, and sets up a surveillance cell in an attic. However, he soon finds out that Dreyman is as committed to the GDR, as he himself is. Dreyman may not be the fan of many of Stasi’s ideologies, but he is loyal to socialism. Christa-Maria in the meanwhile submits to the Minister’s lecherous advances in order to procure an illegal drug she takes regularly.
Dreyman is pushed to take the bait and do something silly so Weisler can nab him. But just when Weisler’s prayers are answered, he begins to have a transformation. Initially detesting Dreyman and his intellectual kind, Weisler finds out the real intentions of the minister [to get Dreyman out of his way], and begins to question his own faith in the regime and his superiors. He also notices how the seniors abuse their power and indulge in luxurious lifestyles, which doesn’t conform to the socialist ideology.
Dreyman’s favorite director, Jerska is driven to suicide owing to his career ban imposed by the regime many years ago (Dreyman’s constant pleas to revoke the ban make him an easy target for his haters to make his incarceration easy). Perturbed by Jerska’s death, Dreyman writes a piece about the shooting suicide rates in GDR, which are not documented by the regime in order to maintain the façade of a happy, prosperous state to the world.
Weisler, witness to all the developments involving Dreyman and his intellectual clique, has a change of heart, and meticulously eradicates all the evidences from his report that would put Dreyman away. He is drawn to them and his conflicts become more pronounced, as he questions his professional obligations and moral duties. He overhears a discussion between Dreyman and Christa-Maria, when she is about to leave for a licentious rendezvous with the minister, in which Dreyman pleads her not to go and believe her aesthetic genius, [instead of fornicating with the minister to stay out of Stasi’s radar as she takes illegal drugs]. She leaves anyway, telling Dreyman that they are both “sleeping with the regime in their own ways.” Weisler pursues her, and tells her that she is an excellent actress and should trust her abilities, in essence, urging her to go back to Dreyman instead of submitting herself to the minister. She does go back, and stops seeing Hempf.
In the meanwhile, the article finds its way to the west, and is published prominently in media – a resounding slap on party’s face prompting the furious bureaucracy to step up the search for the author (the article is written anonymously to keep Dreyman out of trouble). The article has been written using a contraband Collibri typewriter which makes tracing the typist impossible. The top brass however is convinced that Dreyman is behind it and it’s a perfect opportunity for them to nail him, only if they could prove it. Weisler, questioned by Grubitz, denies the fact that Dreyman wrote it, to protect him. Grubitz is suspicious, and driven by the frustrated minister whose bed has been rather cold off late, detains Christa-Maria to question her regarding the article. Terrified of going to prison and mortified by the thought of her career’s premature demise, she spills the beans and tells the authorities where the typewriter is hidden. However, before the Stasi police arrives, Weisler removes the typewriter and saves a confounded but relieved Dreyman. Christa-Maria, unable to cope with her own betrayal, jumps in front of a speeding truck, and dies before Weisler can save her and tell her that the evidence is safely stashed away.
Grubitz, sensing Weisler’s sympathies for Dreyman, demotes him to a low ranking position in a post office, where he checks for inflammatory material in the letters.
Years later, the Berlin wall is demolished, and the state is now free from the clutches of socialism. Dreyman finds out about the operation, looks up his file, only to find that it does not contain any reference regarding his article. He looks up the records to find his real guardian angel, referred to by HGW XX/7. In the parting scene, Weisler comes across Dreyman’s book, The Sonata of Good Men, which mentions his gratitude to him. The End.
It is strange that this movie was the first by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, because how a director can climb such formidable heights in his debut, is beyond praise. The maturity, the insight, the treatment is something I would only expect from legends like Polanski, Scorcese, or Wong Kar Wai. But Donnersmarck blows you away without any fireworks, crescendos, or majestic projections. He is generous with sensitivity and intellect, (“Can someone who listens to Beethovan’s Appassionata be really a bad person?”, says Dreyman in one scene), but doesn’t go overboard with any single aspect of story-telling…giving each actor his/her due.
If Dreyman is the quintessential intellectual with unfathomable strength and endurance, Weisler becomes the ultimate enlightened man, a selfless rescuer of good men. And in many ways, this movie IS the sonata of men like him and Dreyman. He steals the show all the way even though others are not far behind. If Sebastian Koch and Martina Gedeck do great justice to their roles as Dreyman, and Christa-Maria, then Ulrich Mühe, with his quiet, pensive disposition defines Weisler.
This review has gotten longer than I intended, so I’ll stop my synopsis here rather abruptly (in case you even got to this point). But anyway, my Sunday movie-marathon started with this great movie, and ended with another masterpiece. I’ll talk about it in the next review.