The Lives of Others: Schnitzel with Lemon-Caper Cream

Year Released: 2006
Directed by: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
Starring: Ulrich Muehe, Sebastian Koch, Martina Gedeck, Ulrich Tukur, Thomas Thieme
(R, 137 min.)

"What loneliness is more lonely than distrust?" George Eliot

Rarely has there been such a perfect film, and increasingly rarer yet, one that Hollywood has had the good sense to recognize. Though it is interlaced with references to the plays of Bertolt Brecht and the music of Beethoven, to me this exquisite German film shines with the spare beauty of a Petrarchan sonnet.

This glimpse into the gray abyss of East Germany begins in November 1984, a mere five years before the fall of the Berlin Wall, in a country convulsed by some last paranoid outcroppings before imploding to freedom. 

The invocation of that year, 1984, seems no coincidence, bringing with it George Orwell’s bleak portrayal of a similar police state, one where big Brother is constantly watching.

Big Brother in this case is true believer Captain Gerd Wielser (Ulrich Muehe), an interrogator so persistent and professional that he is chosen to lecture on his proven techniques to the next crop of young Stasi, the dreaded East German Secret Police.

His approach has the clinical detachment of a doctor taking young residents on rounds to show them the gritty details of some dreadful disease, the unfeeling zeal of examining a textbook example of decaying flesh. He explains carefully the telltale indicators of guilt - word for word repetitions in alibis, and ultimately, the breakdown to tears. The innocent, by contrast, become increasingly hostile as questioning continues.

Even when he’s off duty, Wiesler’s distrusting eyes miss nothing. He is the first to note a palpable arrogance in the squeaky clean playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch), something he considers suspicious. When his friend and superior, Lt. Colonel Anton Grubitz (Ulrich Tukur) mentions this to Minister Hempf, also in attendance at the play, he finds a surprisingly friendly ear. The okay is given for full surveillance, and the audience witnesses a grim reality as a technical SWAT team wires the apartment the playwright shares with his lady love, the beautiful actress Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck) with amazing swiftness and skill.

Holed up in the bare bones attic above the apartment, the conscientious Wiesler draws out a chalk pattern of the rooms beneath him and takes meticulous notes on everything from light banter at Dreyman’s birthday party, and the presumed lovemaking of the couple afterward. He even notes the license number of the car that drops off the beautiful actress one evening.

But that number will have to be expunged from his report, Grubitz tells his friend, for it corresponds to the car owned by none other than Minister Hempt, who Wiesler now finds out is enamored with the lovely Christa-Maria. The more opportunistic Grubitz has no problems with this, the real motivation for the spying, getting some dirt on Dreyman in order to remove a rival. In fact, he even sees it as a incentive to succeed, since finding Dreyman guilty of some sort of treasonous activity will be largely rewarded by the besotted minister. What he hasn’t dealt with is the dangerous zeal of the true believer. 

So here, as after the first octave of the Italian sonnet, we have the turn, or volta. As in a fine sonnet, the change in tone is a subtle one. Muehe’s face gives little away; his emotions are as secret and guarded as the socialist state in which he resides. But from the moment he puts two wires together to make the door buzzer ring and thus lure Dreyman down to witness Christa Maria’s arrival in the back seat of the minister’s car, the dynamics have definitely changed. And Wiesler, once a technocratic voyeur, has become a silent player in the lives of others, a mute participant in a chain of events that will bring down more than a mere wall.

—Kathy Borich

Film-Loving Foodie

Most nights Captain Wiesler goes home to a gray little apartment where he watches the what passes for entertainment on nationalized television, as he settles for an anemic dinner of some nondescript character. The little gray man deserves better. 

We’re cooking him some delicious Schnitzel with Lemon-Caper Cream to remind him what life can and should be beyond the prison of failed political philosophies. 

You might want to make a complete German feast and add some Baked Sauerkraut with Apples, as well as some Spaetzle and Zwiebelkuchen, delicious German noodle dumplings and flaky onion bread.

Schnitzel with Lemon-Caper Cream 

  • 1 (12 ounce) pork tenderloins, cut into 1/2 inch circles (boneless loin chops work well also)
  • 1/2 lemon, juice of 
  • 1/3 cup all-purpose flour 
  • 1/4 teaspoon poultry seasoning 
  • 2 large eggs 
  • 1 tablespoon dijon-style mustard 
  • 1 cup Italian breadcrumbs 
  • 2 tablespoons canola oil or vegetable oil, for frying

Lemon-Caper Cream Sauce 

  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter 
  • 2 tablespoons minced shallots 
  • 1/3 cup dry white wine 
  • 1/3 cup chicken broth 
  • 1/4 cup heavy cream 
  • 1/4 cup jarred lemon curd 
  • 1/4 cup small capers, drained, room temperature

Method

  1. Pound pork circles between pieces of plastic wrap to flatten to 1/4 inch thickness.
  2. Sprinkle both sides of medallions with lemon juice.
  3. Combine flour and poultry seasoning in shallow dish. Coat medallions with flour mixture; shake off excess flour and set aside.
  4. In a deep pie plate, beat the eggs and mix in the mustard.
  5. Place bread crumbs in another pie plate. Dip the pork medallions into the egg mixture; coat well with bread crumbs.
  6. Place in refrigerator for 15 minutes.
  7. For the cream sauce, melt the butter in a small heavy saucepan.
  8. Add shallots and sauté over medium heat until fragrant (approximately 2 minutes).
  9. Remove saucepan from heat; add the wine, chicken broth and cream.
  10. Return saucepan to heat and bring to a boil.
  11. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer, uncovered, for 12 to 15 minutes to reduce by half.
  12. Meanwhile, heat 1 tablespoon of oil in a large heavy skillet.
  13. Add half of the medallions; fry over medium-high heat on both sides for 1-2 minutes or until no longer pink.
  14. Transfer to a plate and tent with foil. Repeat with remaining oil and medallions.
  15. Remove sauce from heat and stir in lemon curd & capers.
  16. Serve with buttered spaetzle and garnish with lemon wedges.

 Recipe Source: Michaela Rosenthal