“Les Enfants Terribles” - Jean-Pierre Melville (1950)

Jean-Pierre Melville’s second feature film, Les Enfants Terribles (1950), came well before his dazzling string of films noir that established him as that genre’s consummate master.  In addition, despite Melville’s consciously developed auteur status, this film’s auteurship is often principally credited to co-scriptwriter Jean Cocteau.  Perhaps because of these considerations, Les Enfants Terribles is often set aside from Melville’s other work and not listed as one of his masterpieces.  This I think is a mistake, and I believe the critical arguments concerning over who was the major contributor and whether this film was specifically an early herald of the French New Wave are only distracting [1].  Of course it is natural to attribute principal authorship to Cocteau, since the film’s story is based on his sensational novel, Les Enfants Terribles (1929), that was a landmark for the early 20th century French avant-garde. But Melville’s unique stylistic contributions were undoubtedly crucial to the film’s entrancing appeal [2]. 

Cocteau, whose work spanned a range of arts including writing, design, art, and filmmaking, was a superstar in French culture.  He seemed to have had close relations with all the major cultural figures during the first half of the 20th century [3].  And his flamboyant lifestyle added to his already considerable notoriety.  Evidently after seeing Melville’s first feature film, Le Silence de la Mer (1949), Cocteau decided to invite Melville to make a film out of his own famous novel rather than direct the work, himself.  It was a good decision.  Melville’s moody, expressionistic mise-en-scene blended well with Cocteau’s more abstract and outrageous declarations in his story.

The subject matter of Les Enfants Terribles concerns two young Parisian siblings who live alone and have mostly withdrawn from the world around them into their own private dreamworld. Some people may dismiss the whole tale as a depiction of two narcissistic misfits whose self-obsessions  are unworthy of our attention.  But there are aspects of this story and the way it is presented that have wider connotations and perspectives; and they draw us in.

For one thing, the story concerns how people, but especially young people, form their understandings of themselves by imagining the roles they might play in social narratives.  The principal character, Elisabeth, wants to embed herself in fantastic, self-constructed dramatic narratives in which she is a major protagonist.  Her constant collaborator in these little psychodramas is her younger brother, Paul.  So Elisabeth and Paul prefer their dramatic pseudo-narratives over the humdrum narratives of the external world, because they offer them more dramatic roles to play.

The problem is that when people fabricate narratives, they do so because they are insecure about exposing their inner selves to the outside world.  In their fantasy worlds, they are safer.  But even in those worlds, they need ways to melodramatize their stories in order to make things interesting.  In this respect there are two main emotional directions:
  • Love – this can be expressed when one is open and unguarded, when one is willing to expose one’s inner self.  But this can only be expressed if the feeling is not a forbidden love, i.e. a love that is not acceptable to the society at large.
  • Hate – this can be expressed by the fearful and guarded. 
Both Elisabeth and Paul have forbidden loves, and so they confine their mini-stories, which they call instances of “the game”, to those of resentment and hate.

In truth, the feeling of love is a new and astonishing emotion for all young people, and they probably experience the feeling of forbidden loves much more often than our public society is willing to acknowledge.  In Les Enfants Terribles, there are five principal characters, and they all have feelings of love that they are reluctant to express.
  • Elisabeth (played by Nicole Stéphane) is the older sibling.  She has an incestuous passion for her younger brother, Paul.
  • Paul (Edouard Dermithe), Elisabeth’s brother, has a homosexual passion for his schoolmate Dargelos.
  • Dargelos (Renée Cosima), Paul’s androgynous and ruthless friend, may have unexpressed feelings for Paul.
  • Agathe (Renée Cosima), Elisabeth’s friend, has a secret passion for Paul.
  • Gerard (Jacques Bernard) has an unexpressed love for Elisabeth.
Forbidden love was a subject very much on the table for the makers of this film, too.  Cocteau was a flamboyant bisexual: Dargelos was the name of one of Cocteau’s boyhood passions, and the name frequently appears in Cocteau’s works.  Edouard Dermithe was Cocteau’s lover at the time of this film’s making [1].  Nicole Stéphane had affairs with women. And Melville always had an ambiguous profile in this area, as well.

The story of Les Enfants Terribles moves through thee major acts.

1.  Elisabeth, Paul, and Gerard
In the opening scene, there is a schoolyard snowball fight in which Paul is seriously injured by a snowball thrown at him by Dargelos.  Paul’s friend Gerard takes him home to his apartment, where his sister Elisabeth is angry to learn that she now has to look after both Paul and their ill mother.  A doctor arrives and after diagnosing Paul with a weak heart, orders him to stay home from school for the time being.  That is fine with Elisabeth, because her main interest is to play “the game”, their fantasy dramas in which the two siblings express feigned resentment towards each other.  They call this “getting lost” in the game.  They also like to collect and keep in their “treasure chest” some weird, useless artifacts that have meaning only for their pseudo-narrative contexts. Watching them eagerly in all this is the solicitous Gerard, who is usually dismissed or scorned by Elisabeth but is still sometimes a prop in their games.

During one of their rowdy dramas, Paul and Elisabeth happen to run into their sick mother’s room and discover that she has just passed away.  Their mother’s death doesn’t evoke much emotion from the two of them, and it seems to be just another narrative event to add color to their lives.

Incidentally, the doctor, along with all the other adults in this story, represents good-tempered responsibility and support.  These are the kind of people who comfortably fit in well with the existing mature social framework. The doctor and Gerard’s obliging rich uncle arrange for them all to take a trip to the seaside.  There the young people engage in more impudent naughtiness for its own sake, like stealing worthless (to them) objects from a local store or antagonizing small children.

When they return to Paris, Elisabeth, now freed from looking after her mother, decides to get a job as a model at a couturier studio.

By this point in the story, it is already evident that Gerard secretly loves Elisabeth, and Elisabeth secretly loves her brother Paul.

2.  Agathe Enters the Picture

At the fashion studio Elisabeth befriends fellow model Agathe and invites the girl to come live in her apartment.  Upon meeting Agathe, Paul is disturbed to see how much the young woman looks like his schoolboy crush, Dargelos – (Melville having achieved this striking resemblance by casting Renée Cosima in both roles).  And so Paul displays hostility towards Agathe. 

Elisabeth’s modeling activities lead her to meet a wealthy young American, Michael (Melvyn Martin).  (The actor Melvyn Martin, by the way, was an American singer, and he composed the music and lyrics for the romantic song he sings to Elisabeth in the film [4].)  In no time at all Michael proposes to and marries Elisabeth, and then he dies in a road accident the day after their wedding.  Again, Elisabeth seems not to be very emotionally moved by the loss of her husband, and is more affected by the sudden dramatic change in her lifestyle and thus her life narrative.  She is now a wealthy widow and owner of an 18-room mansion. 

With rooms to spare, Elisabeth invites Paul, Gerard, and Agathe to come and live together with her in her mansion.  But soon her new wealth has become boring to her.  She confesses to Paul that she finds the freedom of being rich leaving her in an empty void.  She longs for the confinement and involvement of “getting lost” in their gameplay.  That opportunity will soon arise.

3.  Endplay
In the final act everything comes to a head.  Paul reveals to Elisabeth that he has overcome his loss of Dargelos and has fallen in love with Agathe.  Soon Agathe also confides to Elisabeth that she secretly loves Paul, but that he is scornful of her.  Now Elisabeth has a serious problem: her own love for Paul is jeopardized by Agathe, and so too is her life of game playing with Paul.  So she takes action by spreading a series of lies, which are her own desperately contrived pseudo-narratives:
  • She convinces Paul that Agathe actually loves Gerard.
  • She convinces Gerard that Agathe loves him.
  • She then convinces Agathe that Gerard loves her and wants to marry her.
Disturbed by what she has just done, Elisabeth looks at her hands with horror and tries to wash them – reminiscent of the “Out, damned spot” scene from Shakespeare's Macbeth.  But she wants Paul all to herself.

Gerard and Agathe, fooled by Elisabeth’s lies, settle for each other, and they are soon married and off on a honeymoon.  When they return, Gerard reports to Paul that on their trip he ran into Dargelos, who now works for a car company and travels a lot.  Gerard reports further that Dargelos, remembering that he and Paul used to share a fascination with poison, gave some exotic poison he had acquired to Gerard to give to Paul.  Paul, though still grieving over his loss of Agathe, momentarily likes the gift, and Elisabeth adds it to their “treasure chest.”

The viewer can see where this is headed. Elisabeth’s nightmare of Paul’s death soon becomes a reality.  Just before his death and finally knowing the truth of Elisabeth’s wicked machinations, Paul calls his sister a monster.  She tells him simply that she didn’t want to lose him.  And then she offers her final cryptic explanation of her own self-destructiveness:
“I have to make life unbearable, make it sick of me. I have to make the game despise me. . .”

What elevates Les Enfants Terribles above the level of mindless solipsism is the way it explores and reveals, in admittedly exaggerated form, a fundamental problem that we all face: the search for authentic involvement with life.  We abhor getting bogged down in the boring routines of the everyday, so we withdraw from those potential involvements in search of something more meaningful.  And our exposure to culture brings to our attention the possibilities of our being involved in wonderful and exciting narratives. So we withdraw from the everyday and become isolated.

This is the paradox.  Elisabeth and Paul were educated, but their education led them to their isolation. And this is what is happening today. Although the paradoxical isolating process may have been accelerated with the advent of television, it seems to be even more magnified in the modern era of social media.  These media are supposed to connect everyone, but instead we see many people withdrawing into their pseudo-narrative shells.  And, as I mentioned earlier, for those who are guarded and worried about losing their exciting-narrative opportunities, the pseudo-narratives they most easily construct are based on hatred and resentment.  Thus we now have the quasi-fascist Alt-right grouping in the US that spreads its resentment-filled pseudo-narratives via social media and fake news stories.  This leads to segregation and mutual hostility, and it can also lead to people politically supporting bigoted demagogues whose simplistic pseudo-narratives cannot possibly accommodate the diversity that feeds a fruitful society.

We need better social media that do not to keep us individually looking into “the cloud”, but instead help bring about more, and more meaningful, face-to-face interactions.

Telling a tale such as this is not easy.  There is the fundamental difficulty here of presenting an authentic drama (which inherently must be conveyed by role-playing) that is fundamentally about the dangers and false seductions of role-playing.  We must have actors and a film director who can realistically present someone who is staging false theatrics and accomplish this by means of believable staged theatrics.  In this respect I would say that Nicole Stéphane (in the role of Elisabeth) and Jean-Pierre Melville both succeeded brilliantly.  Stéphane’s acting is one of the most entrancing screen performances I have seen. 

The film acting was effectively combined with three other key elements of the production to maintain a sense of affective interiority.  Jean Cocteau’s voiceover narration sustained a level of reflective commentary on what happened.  The nondiegetic music, featuring Bach’s “Concerto for Four Pianos” and Vivaldi’s “Concerto Grosso”, also cast an inward-directed mood over the film.  And Melville’s atmospheric and dynamic expressionism – using variously (a) moody high- and low-angle shots, (b) contextually evocative tracking shots, and (c) dramatically appropriate camera-facing closeups – is beautifully implemented by cinematographer  Henri Decaë.  It all works perfectly to convey the feelings of narrative desperation.

  1. Gary Indiana, Les enfants terribles: Hazards of a Snowball Fight”, The Criterion Collection, (9 July 2007).   
  2. Neel Chaudhuri, “Into the Realms of Light and Darkness: Les Enfants terribles,  Cinémathèque Annotations on Film, Issue 39, Senses of Cinema, (5 May 2006).  
  3. Kevin Jackson, “Enfant Terrible, Jean Cocteau: A Life By Claude Arnaud”, Literary Review, (6 December 2016).   
  4. Variety Staff, “Review: ‘Les Enfants Terribles’”, Variety, (31 December 1949).   

“Sadgati” - Satyajit Ray (1981)

Sadgati (Deliverance, 1981) is a 45-minute, made-for-TV drama that was written, scored, and directed by Satyajit Ray.  The story covers a lowly tanner’s frustrated efforts over the course of a single day to get a consultation with a local Brahmin priest in order to set a propitious date for his daughter’s upcoming marriage ceremony. 

Ray’s script is based on Munshi Premchand’s short story "Sadgati" that was first published in 1931, and it follows Premchand’s story quite closely [1].  The original languages of Ray’s films were almost invariably his native Bengali, but since Premchand’s story was originally in Hindi  (Hindustani, actually) and the film was to be released on national television in Hindi, Ray needed to produce a Hindi script.  It is my understanding that in this case Ray wrote his dialogue for the film in English, which was then translated into Hindi by Premchand’s son, Amrit Rai. 

The overlying theme of the film concerns the Indian caste system and its singular way of channeling human interactions.  The Indian caste system has always been a matter of controversy – it has a long and disputed history, and, of course, it has manifested itself variously across India and evolved over the years.  Nevertheless, it is generally agreed that the elements of the caste system date back to Vedic times, and that, though the system has been adopted and exploited by various invaders, the caste system has been basically unique to India and has been amazingly persistent over the course of time [2,3,4].

The caste system makes reference to (a) the four varnas, which are essentially the primary social classes –  Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras – as well as to (b) the jatis, which comprise the thousands of occupationally oriented castes within those classes [2].  I am not expert in this area, but I will offer the following quote from Heinrich Zimmer concerning how the caste system was seen to fit in to the entire socio-philosophical fabric of India [5]:
    Caste is regarded as forming an innate part of character.  The divine moral order (dharma) by which the social structure is knit together and sustained is the same as that which gives continuity to the lives of the individual; and just as the present is to be understood as a natural consequence of the past, so in accordance with the manner in which the present role is played will the caste of the future be determined.  Not only one’s caste and trade, furthermore, but also all the things that happen to one (even though apparently through the slightest chance), are determined by, and exactly appropriate to, one’s nature and profoundest requirement.  The vital, malleable episode at hand points back to former lives; it is their result – the natural effect of bygone causal factors operating on the plane of ethical values, human virtues, and personal qualities, in accordance with universal natural laws of elective attraction and spontaneous repulsion.  What a person is and what he experiences are regarded as strictly commensurate, like the inside and the outside of a vase.
    The correct manner of dealing with every life problem that arises, therefore is indicated by the laws (dharma) of the caste (varna) to which one belongs, and of the particular stage-of-life (āśrama) that is proper to one’s age.
Premchand’s story is relatively straightforward, but bitterly ironic and a castigation of the caste system.  Ray’s artistry was in the way he elegantly translated the short narrative into cinematic form.

The story begins in the morning with a diligent tanner, Dukhi (played by Om Puri), preparing a gift of cut grass to give to the Brahmin that he is to see.  His wife Jhuria (Smita Patil) urges him to delay his meeting with the Brahmin, since he has not fully recovered from a recent fever. Meanwhile we see the well-fed Brahmin (Mohan Agashe) at home attending to his ceremonial makeup and rituals. 

Dukhi arrives at the Brahmin’s home and humbly prostrates himself on the floor when he sees the Brahman.  Since Dukhi is a tanner, he belongs to one of the artisan groupings that is considered fundamentally impure and untouchable before the revered holy man [6].  The Brahmin’s response to Dukhi’s simple request to provide a propitious wedding date for his daughter is supercilious and scornful, and he tell Dukhi that he first must perform some menial tasks for the Brahmin.  First he is to sweep his verandah and then move a lot of husk to the cowshed.  Ray and  cinematographer Soumendu Roy have a nice tracking shot here showing Dukhi dutifully struggling with the heavy bag of husk that he must carry to the cowshed.

This takes some time, and Dukhi is tired, but now the Brahmin orders him to take a small axe and chop up a massive dried log into thin wood chips.  This is clearly a hopeless task for the slightly-built man, and he chops away without making any progress. 

A sympathetic onlooker, who is apparently a member of outcaste Gond minority, offers Dukhi some tobacco for a smoke, but he doesn’t have any way to light it.  When Dukhi approaches the Brahmin for a little charcoal to light his tobacco pipe, the Brahmin’s petulant wife (Gita Siddhdarth) is offended that an untouchable should again cross their doorsill.  Dukhi goes back to his hopeless task of chopping the log, and eventually slumps from exhaustion.

When the Brahmin wakes up from an afternoon nap and sees Dukhi’s inactivity, he imperiously orders the man to chop harder and harder.  Dukhi puts everything he has into the effort and works himself into a frenzy of chopping, but it is finally too much for him.  He collapses to the ground and dies on the spot.

Now all the Brahmins in the village have a problem.  There is a corpse of an untouchable lying on their path to their water well.  Their dharmic rules forbid them from walking there, and of course, those rules also prevent them from touching the untouchable corpse, too.  The people from the tanning colony refuse to move the corpse, thanks to the admonitions of the Gond person, who knows that the Brahmin in our story is guilty of the tanner’s death.  It is starting to rain, and the Brahmin knows that the corpse will begin to smell and the police may arrive and investigate the cause of this death.

So in the evening, with noone around to watch, the Brahmin uses a curved stick to help fasten a sling around the leg of the corpse without he, himself, touching it.  Then he drags the corpse to an animal burial mound and deposits it there.  In the morning, the Brahmin is seen proudly and ritually hand-sprinkling holy water (water from the Ganges) on the ground where the corpse had been lying so that that ground will be cleansed of the impurity caused by the untouchable’s body.

The Brahmin and his wife are not evil people, but they are comfortably situated inside a system that perpetuates injustice – and they take advantage of it for their own selfish gains.  And those who remain, such as Jhuria and her daughter, can do nothing but suffer.

Dukhi was a dedicated believer in the social system in which he lived, even though he was an outcaste.  So we see that traditional Indian society had similarities with modern socio-political hierarchies in today’s world (as reflected by recent political events) – the people who are most loyally supportive of their demagogic, populist leaders are the very ones who suffer the most at the hands of the exploitative, rent-seeking coalition that has control over them.

This filming of Sadgati has just the right tone for the telling of this tale.  Besides the cinematography of Soumendu Roy, there is the impeccable work of Ray’s usual film editor, Dulal Dutta.  And, as usual, there is Ray’s moody, low-key music that maintains the right tone.

  1. English translation: T. C. Ghai, “Prem Chand's story: Sadgati”, Interactions (Blogger), (12 March 2013).  
  2. “Caste System in India”, Wikipedia, (18 November 2016).  
  3. H. G. Rawlinson, India: a Short Cultural History, Praeger, (1937/1952), pp. 4,25,26. 
  4. Heinrich Zimmer, The Philosophies of India, Bollingen Series, Princeton University Press, (1951).
  5. Ibid., p. 152.
  6. "Chamar", Wikipedia, (1 December 2016).

Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck

Films of Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck:

“The Lives of Others” - Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck (2006)

The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen, 2006) was writer-director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s remarkable feature-film debut that has attracted widespread international acclaim [1,2,3] and won a US Oscar for Best Foreign Film.  Set in East Germany (German Democratic Republic) when the government’s paranoid and oppressive secret police, the Stasi (“State Security”), engaged in massive surveillance of its citizenry, the story is a drama concerning both the watchers and the watched in this context.  In this respect the film may be compared to Mohammad Rasoulof’s Manuscripts Don't Burn (2013), which examines an instance of Iranian government surveillance from a similarly dual perspective.  What makes The Lives of Others particularly outstanding is that it works on many levels – it’s a political thriller, a psychological drama, and even a cinematic moral and philosophical meditation.  Partly in response to these multiple themes, some critics have praised the film’s dramatics but have still condemned some of its presumed meaningful implications [4,5].

The film begins in the appropriate Orwellian year of 1984, when the Stasi was working on its ambitious and pernicious goal of compiling secret portfolios on every citizen in the GDR.  This was five years before the fall of the Berlin Wall and six years before the demise of the GDR. At this time the Stasi was East Germany’s largest employer, with about 100,000 regular employees and another 200,000 additional informants. 

The story concerns a prominent East German playwright who had, unlike most of that country’s intellectuals, up to this point escaped state scrutiny because of his innocent pro-Communist views and uncontroversial writings. As one senior Stasi senior office remarks, this man is "our only non-subversive writer who is also read in the West.” However, intellectuals are always considered to be threats by dictatorships [6], and early on in this story, a meticulously diligent Stasi captain is assigned to monitor this writer and see if there is any dirt that can be uncovered about him. The Stasi have no real suspicions about this writer, but they habitually perceive their career opportunities as being based on uncovering uncomfortable secrets about everyone.

As a psychological drama, the story is particularly interesting, because the five principal characters have differing moral outlooks towards others, and as the story unfolds, the moral perspectives of three of these characters (the first three listed below) evolve in response to their mutual interactions.  This is what distinguishes The Lives of Others from Manuscripts Don’t Burn.  The five principal characters are the following:

  • Georg Dreyman (played by Sebastian Koch) is the successful playwright.  He is an empathetic and cordial individual who seeks social harmony among those with whom he interacts.  As such, he is well liked but is sometimes criticized by colleagues more concerned about the GDR’s deprivation of human rights.  Also, Dreyman is passionately in love with his girlfriend, Christa-Maria Sieland.
  • Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe) is a Stasi captain sincerely dedicated to ruthlessly following his organization’s rules and pursuing its professed goals in order to protect the Socialist state.  He is soft-spoken and polite, but he seems to have no personal connections with anyone and is the quintessential loner.  His survival instincts have presumably led him to maintain an expressionless demeanor at all times.
  • Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck) is one of the country’s leading young actresses and is committed to her professional success. She is kind and sensitive, but she has some characterological weaknesses, too, as suggested by her evident addiction to some unspecified narcotic.
  • Lieutenant-Colonel Anton Grubitz (Ulrich Tukur) is Wiesler’s Stasi boss who is jovial but ultimately an opportunist.  He tries to maintain a convivial front, but has no compassion for people in his way.
  • GDR Culture Minister Bruno Hempf (Thomas Thieme) is a brutish, unscrupulous reprobate who uses his high position to further his selfish interests.
The film focalizes on the first three characters listed above.  It begins showing Wiesler lecturing his students at the Stasi academy on how he cold-bloodedly uses stress and extreme sleep deprivation to extract confessions from his “subjects”.  It is clear from this segment that torture is one of the weapons of the Stasi’s service to the state. Later after attending the state performance of one of Georg Dreyman’s plays, Wiesler’s own suspiciousness, and perhaps his personal envy, lead him voice his perceived doubts about Dreyman and to his being assigned by Culture Minister Bruno Hempf to monitor the author. In short order Wiesler and his colleagues go to Dreyman’s apartment while he is out and set up monitoring equipment to record everything that is said there.  Then he sets up shop in the attic of Dreyman’s building so that he and his subordinate can listen in on Dreyman’s activities.

Note that while Wiesler and his colleague in this operation can listen in and look out the window to see the street (for example, to see the entries to and exits from of Dreyman’s building), what they record for the Stasi is only text – there are no sound recordings or films made in connection with their surveillance. The difference between the richness of real-world experience and sparseness of text is important.  Wiesler even commented about this to his academy students when he warned them that if one of their interrogation subjects repeats the same testimony word-for-word, then it is not real; it is only memorized text and has no foundation in the real world.  But as the story proceeds, we see that Wiesler’s’ world is similarly impoverished.  He is living in a textual rule-based context that is removed from the richness of the real world.  However, as he listens in on Dreyman’s life, he starts making the connection. 

The focalization shifts back and forth between Dreyman’s life with his live-in girlfriend Christa-Marie and the headphone-clad Wiesler listening in upstairs.  Dreyman is concerned about his depressed director friend Albert Jerska (Volkmar Kleinert), whose outspokenness has caused him to be blacklisted for the past seven years. Wiesler, meanwhile, is becoming fascinated with the richness of Dreyman’s world. While Dreyman is out, he sneaks into his apartment and “borrows” a book of Brecht’s poetry that Jerska had recommended to Dreyman.

Wiesler also learns that Christa-Marie is apparently secretly seeing some man who picks her up outside the apartment in a big limousine. Looking up the limousine’s license plate number, Wiesler discovers that it belongs to Minister Hempf, who is apparently forcing his sexual advances on the woman.  Now Wiesler, the loyal Stasi functionary, realizes that his entire project of spying on Dreyman was merely Hempf’s vicious effort to eliminate his romantic rival for Christa-Marie’s attentions. So Wiesler takes another step in involving himself in Dreyman’s personal life by contriving to have Dreyman learn about the sordid affair.

Later Dreyman learns of his friend Jerska’s suicide, and he mournfully sits down at the piano and plays the piano piece, “Sonata for a Good Man”, the sheet music for which had been given to him by Jerska at his recent birthday party.  Listening in on his headphones upstairs, Wiesler is moved and sheds tears.

When Christa-Marie is about to go out for the evening, Dreyman, knowing that she is going to see Hempf, begs her not to go.  He knows that she is seeing the man in order to further her acting career, but Dreyman tells her to believe in her own talent and not to rely on the favors of a powerbroker.  She leaves anyway, and Dreyman is upset.  So, too, is Wiesler, who has been listening in on his headphones.  To calm himself, Wiesler heads out to a local bar and happens  to see Christa-Marie come in there for a drink, too.  Identifying himself merely as a fan, Wiesler approaches and urges her to believe in her own talent.  Hearing this urging from a second source and reminding her of Dreyman’s love for her, she returns to Dreyman’s apartment and abandons her tryst with Hempf.  Clearly, Wiesler is now becoming further immersed in Dreyman’s world.

On the Dreyman side of things, Jerska’s suicide has moved Dreyman to finally raise his voice in the social sphere.  He decides to write an article about East Germany’s enormous, but carefully kept secret, suicide rate and have it published anonymously in the West.  There is a clever plot twist at this point, though, that almost foils his plans.  He and his close associates, of course, want to keep this article-publishing project secret, and just to check whether they are being monitored, they stage a ruse: a fake, illegal border-crossing into West Berlin that they loudly discuss inside Dreyman’s apartment.  Wiesler overhears this phony plan, but his growing compassion for Dreyman prevents him from reporting it.  So when the fake border-crossing is not intercepted by the authorities, Dreyman and his pals assume the apartment is not bugged, and they go ahead and discuss their plans for the article.  Wiesler then learns about their real intentions, but he still balks at reporting them. Soon Dreyman’s article is published externally in Der Spiegel, much to the humiliation and consternation of the GDR and the Stasi.

But the Stasi’s perfidy has multiple avenues, and at this point the focalization shifts to Christa-Marie.  Hempf, vengeful for having been spurned by the woman, has the Stasi arrest her for narcotic addiction, and they threaten her with prison unless she becomes one of their informants.  Then, in one of the more dramatic moments of a very dramatic film, Christa-Marie succumbs to her human weakness and agrees to inform on Dreyman.

This leads to the dramatic and tragic“finale”, where Wiesler once again secretly takes an action that saves Dreyman from arrest and finally torpedoes the Stasi investigation into the man.  But the film doesn’t end with that seemingly climactic event, and von Donnersmarck boldly continues his story with something of a coda that describes some events over the ensuing nine years. 

Although Wiesler was too careful to be caught helping Dreyman, he was suspected of doing so, and his Stasi career was ruined.  He is quickly sidelined into the menial task of steam-opening private letters for the Stasi. 

In 1991, with the GDR now defunct, Dreyman runs into Hempf attending a performance of one his plays and asks the man why he was never placed under surveillance  in those old days.  Hempf shocks Dreyman by telling him that he was indeed under full surveillance.  Hempf then scornfully tells him that,    
“We knew that you couldn’t give our little Christa what she needed.”
To which the ever-civilized Dreyman only responds with,
“To think that people like you once ruled a country.”
Now  Dreyman goes to the State Security archives, which are at this point a “Research Site and Memorial” and asks for access to the files that the Stasi had had on him.  When he examines them at length, he discovers that they did have a lot of detail about his activities but that an agent code-named “HGW XX/7" had written false reports that covered up Dreyman’s “treasonous” work on his article that was published abroad.  Dreyman doesn’t know why the man did this, but two years later he dedicates his latest book, Sonata for a Good Man to “HGW XX/7".  The final scene shows Wiesler, now just a postal delivery man, purchasing a copy of the book and reading the dedication.

The marvel of The Lives of Others is the way it works on multiple levels –  a political drama, a gripping human story, and an insightful look at human interactions.  Credit for this outstanding work goes to Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, of course, but it must be remarked that all aspects of the production values are superb. That includes the cinematography of Hagen Bogdanski, the editing of Patricia Rommel, and the music of Gabriel Yared and Stéphane Moucha.  In particular, Yared’s original composition “Sonata for a Good Man” is a key element in the story told. It all has to be first-rate in order for this complex tale to work.  Furthermore, the acting is uniformly good, in particular that of Ulrich Mühe in the role of Wiesler.  In this role, he has to be low-key, but subtly nuanced.  Take a look at Wiesler’s final expression at the close of the film to see what I mean.  Incidentally, Mühe, who tragically died of cancer within a year of the film’s release, had his own experiences with the Stasi’s depredations back in those days.  And I wonder if his experiences may have been partly an inspiration for von Donnersmarck.

Still, there have been some reviewers who have criticized the film for overly humanizing a member of the treacherous state apparatus [4,5]. They want it all black-and-white, so that Satan can be rightfully condemned.  But it is never so simple as that.  And if the historical narrative is always told too simply, then when a truly inherently demonic individual comes to the fore, people may have difficulty recognizing him. 

In general people often get misled, misinformed, or simply coerced into cooperating with corrupt regimes.  As Masha Gessen has recently and succinctly stated [7],
“Criminal regimes function in part by forcing the maximum number of subjects to participate in the atrocities.”
This is how they compromise their own people into cooperating with their crimes.  Gessen reminds us that there are numerous state security organizations involved in massive, illegal surveillance and the denial of human rights around the world – even in the US.  In the US context, these basic violations of liberal democracy have been exposed by Edward Snowden‘s revelations and covered in several recent documentary films – United States of Secrets (Part One): The Program (2014), United States of Secrets (Part Two): Privacy Lost (2014), Citizenfour (2014), and Terminal F/Chasing Edward Snowden (2015).  The US government has also supported and cooperated with the state security organizations of other autocratic government.  For example,
  • the US was clandestinely involved in human rights suppression in South America in the 1960s and 1970s – cf. The City of Photographers (2006);
  • the US CIA taught torture techniques, based on captured Nazi documents, to the SAVAK secret police of the government of Iran ruled by Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi [8,9,10].
Christa-Marie was pressured into being an informant.  Wiesler was initially brainwashed.  But in both cases, we could see their underlying humanity.  In Wiesler’s case, he opened up as a human being when he was exposed to the full flush of Dreyman’s lifeworld.  Wiesler had been captive to a world dominated by text – by categorical conclusions that could lead to categorical acts of cruelty and suppression.  When his job led him to being immersed in Dreyman’s lifeworld, Wiesler was exposed to more subtle feelings of love and compassion.  This awakened the “good man” (the “angel”) that lies deep inside every person, even a Stasi operative. But it has to be nurtured and invoked.  It was the complex richness of life – in music and human interactions – that finally moved Wiesler to compassion.  Von Donnersmarck  is suggesting to us that beautiful music – not text – can do that for us.   And, of course, love can do that, too – if we only embrace it when it appears.

  1. Roger Ebert, “The Lives of Others”, RogerEbert.com, (20 September 2007).   
  2. Mick LaSalle, “Secret Police Spy on Happy Couple in Brilliant Thriller”, San Francisco Gate, (16 February 2007).   
  3. Anthony Lane, “Guilty Parties 'The Lives of Others'“, The New Yorker, (12 February 2007).   
  4. J. Hoberman, “Stasi Cinema”, The Village Voice, (30 January 30 2007).  
  5. Timothy Garton Ash, “The Stasi on Our Minds”, The New York Review of Books, 31 May 2007).  
  6. Santiago Ramos, “Why Dictators Fear Artists”, First Things, (23 July 2007).  
  7. Masha Gessen, “Trump: The Choice We Face”, The New York Review of Books, (27 November 2016).  
  8. Seymour M. Hersh, “Ex-Analyst Says C.I.A. Rejected Warning on Shah; Shah Was a Source for C.I.A.”, The New York Times, 7 January 1979.
  9. Alexander Cockburn & James Ridgeway, “The Shah and the Hot-Egg Tango”, The Village Voice (“The Moving Target” column), 4 December 1978.
  10. A. J. Langguth, “Torture’s Teachers”, The New York Times, 11 June 1979.