“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.

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