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 Academy Award 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 and grossed more than US$77 million worldwide as of November 2007.
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 Goodbye, Lenin! and Sonnenallee. This approach was widely applauded in Germany even as some criticized the humanization of Wiesler's character. Many former East Germans were stunned by the factual accuracy of the film's set and atmosphere, accurately portraying a state which merged with West Germany and ceased to exist 16 years prior to the release. The film's authenticity was considered notable, given that the director grew up outside of East Germany and was only sixteen when the Berlin Wall fell.
In 1984 East Germany, legendary Stasi Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe), code name HGW XX/7, accepts an assignment from his superiors to spy on the playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch), who has previously 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. Shortly after his surveillance begins, Wiesler learns the real reason for why Dreyman has been put under surveillance: the Minister of Culture, Bruno Hempf (Thomas Thieme) covets Dreyman's girlfriend, actress Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck), and is trying to eliminate Dreyman as a romantic rival. While Wiesler's superior, Lt. Col. Anton Grubitz (Ulrich Tukur), sees no problem with this, as it is an opportunity for advancement, the idealist Wiesler is skeptical. Minister Hempf coerces Sieland into having sex with him by exploiting her reliance on the state for employment as an actress and her addiction to prescription medication. After an intervention by Wiesler leads to Dreyman 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, rejecting Hempf.
Though a communist and supporter of the regime, Dreyman becomes disillusioned with the treatment of his colleagues by the state. At his 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 on the East German suicide rate in Der Spiegel, a prominent West German newsweekly. Dreyman's article accuses the state of callously ignoring those who commit suicide. Since all East German typewriters are registered, an editor of Der Spiegel smuggles Dreyman a miniature typewriter with a red ribbon. Dreyman hides the typewriter under a false floorboard of his apartment, but is seen one afternoon by Sieland hiding it there as she returns to the apartment. When Dreyman and his friends feign a defection attempt to determine whether his flat is bugged, Wiesler, who has become sympathetic to Dreyman and disillusioned with the GDR and the Stasi, does not alert the border guards, and the conspirators believe they are safe. He also decides against informing his boss of Dreyman's article and instead requests that surveillance be scaled back to eliminate his subordinate.
A few days later, Dreyman's article is published, angering the East German authorities. The Stasi obtains a copy of the suicide article, typewritten in red ink, but they are unable to link it to any typewriter legally registered in the GDR. Livid at being jilted by Sieland, Hempf orders Grubitz to arrest her, informing him where she illegally buys her prescription drugs. She is blackmailed into revealing Dreyman's authorship of the article and becoming an informant. When the Stasi search his apartment, however, they cannot find the typewriter. Dreyman and his friends conclude that Sieland could not have informed because she would have given away the location of the hidden typewriter. Grubitz, suspicious that Wiesler has mentioned nothing unusual in his daily reports of the monitoring, gives Wiesler "one more chance" and orders him to do the follow-up interrogation of Sieland. Wiesler resumes his role as Stasi interrogator and forces Sieland to tell him exactly where the typewriter is hidden.
Grubitz and the Stasi return to Dreyman's apartment. Sieland panics when she realizes that Dreyman will know she betrayed him and flees the apartment. When Grubitz removes the floor, however, the typewriter is gone—Wiesler having removed it before the search team got there. Unaware of this, Sieland runs to the street and commits suicide by stepping into the path of an oncoming truck. Grubitz offers a perfunctory claim of sympathy and informs Dreyman that the investigation is over. Wiesler drives Grubitz back to the Stasi and is told that his career is over, and that his remaining 20 years with the agency will be in Department M, a dead-end position for disgraced agents. As he leaves, Grubitz discards a newspaper announcing Mikhail Gorbachev as the new leader of the Soviet Union.
Four years later, on November 9, 1989, Wiesler is steam-opening letters in the cramped, windowless office of Department M when a co-worker (the same person who was caught telling Wiesler a joke about East-Germany's leader) tells him about the fall of the Berlin Wall. Realizing that this will mean the end of the GDR and the Stasi, Wiesler silently stands and leaves the office, inspiring his co-workers to do the same. Two years later, Hempf and Dreyman have a chance encounter while both are attending a new performance of Dreyman's play. Dreyman asks the former government minister why he had never been monitored. Much to his surprise, Hempf tells him that he had, in fact, been under full surveillance and to "look behind the light switches" for the listening devices that had been installed in 1984. Dreyman searches his apartment, finds the wiring and rips it from the walls in frustration.
At the Stasi Records Agency, Dreyman reviews the files the Stasi kept while he was under surveillance. He reads that Sieland was released just before the second search, and could not have removed the typewriter. As he goes through his files, he is at first confused by the false and contradicting information that has been written about his activities, but when he reaches the final typewritten report, he sees a fingerprint in red ink just under the signature. Dreyman finally realizes that the officer in charge of his surveillance—Stasi agent HGW XX/7—had knowingly concealed his illegal activities, including his authorship of the suicide article, and that he had been the one who had removed the typewriter from its hidden location. Dreyman searches for Wiesler, who now has a job as a postman, and finds him on his rounds. Unsure of what to say to him, however, he decides not to approach him.
Two years later, Wiesler still has the same job and, whilst on his round, 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, with 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.
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." The screenplay was written during an extended visit to his uncle's monastery, Heiligenkreuz Abbey.
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."
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. 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." 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."
Film critic Roger Ebert gave the film four stars, describing it as "a powerful but quiet film, constructed of hidden thoughts and secret desires." 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." 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."
American commentator John Podhoretz called the film "one of the greatest movies ever made, and certainly the best film of this decade." 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.'" John J. Miller of National Review Online named it #1 in his list of 'The Best Conservative Movies' of the last 25 years.
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. Josh Rosenblatt, writing in the Austin Chronicle called the film "a triumph of muted grandeur." 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." An article in First Things makes a philosophical argument in defense of Wiesler's transformation. 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."
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. 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.
In a 2016 BBC poll, critics voted the film the 23rd greatest since 2000.
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
- Roberto Benigni's Life is Beautiful
- Donnersmarck's The Lives of Others
- Jean-Pierre Jeunet's Amélie
Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Netherlands and Sweden had the film at number 1.
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".
The Lives of Others has been referenced in political protests following the 2013 mass surveillance disclosures. Daniel Ellsberg in an interview with Brad Friedman on KPFK/Pacifica Radio republished on salon.com stressed the importance of The Lives of Others in light of Edward Snowden's revelations:
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.
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." 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?"
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." Because this interview, sales of Le Figaro more than doubled.
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 through the six years of their marriage. Mühe's former wife denied the claims, although 254 pages' worth of government records detailed her activities. 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.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.