Das Leben der Anderen (“The Life of Others”) the Oscar-winning 2006 German drama, is a remarkably authentic portrait of life in East Germany during the communist era but most of all it is an insightful study of human nature and compassion under totalitarianisms.
Written and directed by the then 33-year old Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck at his first feature film debut, The Lives of Others accurately captures the atmosphere of extreme political claustrophobia and paranoia that millions of citizens had to endure for more than 40 years in the German Democratic Republic (DDR). The small population of 16 million was closely monitored by the Ministry of State Security commonly known as Stasi, which employed an estimated 91,000 employees and about 300,000 informants. Its motto was “Shield and Sword of the Party” and its goal was “To know everything”. The Omni-present Secret Police was one of the most extensive infiltrations of a police apparatus in history. The Stasi monitored political behaviour among DDR citizens, and is known to have used torture and intimidation to silence, corrupt, and destroy dissent.
The film has proved an enormous critical and box-office success first in Germany and later worldwide provoking a frank and heated debate about the legacy of the DDR years.
Interestingly Von Donnersmarck’s political thriller is one of the few post-reunification films to really shine a light on the brutality of the Stasi era. In fact, German movies produced after the reunification, generally depict the DDR as funny or moving like the much-acclaimed satire about a fantasy version of the communist regime “Good Bye Lenin!” which some have accused of fostering the much despised Ostalgie – a spreading cultural phenomenon that expresses nostalgia for the “good old days” of the Socialist DDR.
By contrast, The Lives of Others is unmistakably clear in portraying the inhuman, cold, bleak reality of what laid on the other side of Checkpoint Charlie.
In the years in which the film is set, Von Donnersmarck lived in West Berlin, but his family had strong connections in the East. Both of his parents were born there and moved west before the Wall was built, causing them to end up on special Stasi lists. Given his personal attachment to the story, the director was determined to be accurate about his account and therefore studied the subject for four years and even employed a historical consultant on the film (Manfred Wilke). He insisted the film to be shot on location in the rare streets that had not been transformed after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Visually the film is shot against the backdrop of the greys and browns to capture the drab look of the former East and to enhance the sense of oppression and intimidation felt in the DDR.
This film, almost certainly not by chance, begins in 1984 and just like in Orwell’s dystopian reality, everything is meticulously documented, Big Brother keeps tabs on anyone it deems worthy of investigation seeking to maintain its power with the help of a merciless system of control and surveillance.
Captain Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe) is a highly skilled and efficient Stasi officer and a loyal member of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany. The icy, almost robotic Captain is so talented and zealous in interrogation that he gives lectures on interrogation techniques to cadets. In the opening scene Wiesler is teaching his students how to tell if a suspect is lying:
“An innocent prisoner will become more angry by the hour due to the injustice suffered. He will shout and rage. A guilty prisoner becomes more calm and quiet. Or he cries. He knows he’s there for a reason. The best way to establish guilt or innocence is non-stop interrogation”.
The lecture scene is brilliantly intercut with the actual interrogation that ends with the suspect confessing his crime. One chilling detail is that suspects are forced to sit on their hands, so that the chair cushion can be saved for possible use by bloodhounds.
Invited by his superior Oberstleutnant Anton Grubitz, Wiesler attends a play written by Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch), a famous artist who is considered by many to be the ultimate example of the loyal citizen, one of the few East German writers whose work is read in the West. Contrary to most of his friends, he has managed to walk a fine line, staying true to his artistic principles without getting his productions banned. Georg is a decent man and well respected in the artistic community because he uses his secure position to intervene in favour of dissident fellow artists. Wiesler immediately has a gut feeling that Dreyman can’t be as ‘clean’ as he seems and believes surveillance is needed.
For reasons that become clear only later, the Minister of Culture Hempf agrees and so the fearful machinery of the Stasi comes to life: his movements are recorded, and his apartment bugged.
Dreyman lives in a charming book-filled apartment with his girlfriend Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck), a renowned actress who often appears in his plays. Captain Wiesler sets up a secret listening post in the attic above the building, where he records the couple’s every sound, joke, argument, or lovemaking session. When his shift is over, Wiesler returns to his tiny apartment, in a anonymous high-rise building, he eats a meal squeezed out of a plastic tube, then watches the boring programming offered by state-run television and goes to bed alone.
As Captain Wiesler spends hour after hour listening to Dreyman and his girlfriend he begins to like them, or perhaps envy the rich world of literature, music, friendship, and love, so different from his own depressing, solitary life. The more time he spends listening in on them, the more he comes to care about them. He listens intently to the sentiments, convictions and melodies coming from the apartment of his intended victims, gradually becoming absorbed in their passionate relationship. Dreyman introduces Weisler to the humanizing value of music and poetry. At some point the secret watcher even slips into the apartment to steal a copy of Brecht to take home with him. Suddenly they are no longer numbers, no longer mere espionage suspects. He feels attracted to them and to their essential goodness.
Wiesler is a fascinating character brought to life by Muehe’s remarkably subtle performance. His face is a mask, trained by his life to reflect no emotion. Sometimes not even his eyes move.
When Wiesler discovers that the real reason for the investigation is simply to allow the Culture Minister, who is exploiting his position to extract sexual favours from the beautiful Christa, to get his playwright rival out of his way, his world crumbles.
If such corruption and cynicism exist at the highest ranks of the party, what is a good man, a dutiful Communist like himself, to do? Faced with this unfathomable dilemma the once rigid Stasi officer begins to intervene in the lives of his subjects, in a positive way, protecting them whenever possible, omitting details in his official accounts.
Even when Dreyman for the first time is driven towards actions that implicate him in dissident activity, Wiesler takes steps to cover the evidence against him. As the gripping plot races towards its cataclysmic conclusion, the inherent paradox of the story becomes more and more self-evident: the artist and the secret agent appear to be the only two characters who truly believe in the DDR’s socialist ideals, but since the nation itself functions by means of the wholesale and systematic betrayal of those ideals, the only way they can express their loyalty is by committing treason.
Even though they never meet in person for the entire length of the film, these two very different characters share an undeniable connection in that they both experience a process of moral awakening forcing them to come to terms with the lie they are living in and finally see themselves as what they truly are: two loyal servants of a cruel and oppressive regime.
The moment of epiphany for both characters is captured in a beautiful and poetic scene when Dreyman sits at the piano and plays ‘Die Sonate vom guten Menschen’ _ ‘The sonata of good Men”, a birthday gift from Jerzka a dear friend, a dissident theatre director who, banned by the culture minister from pursuing his vocation, subsequently commits suicide. Jerzka represents one of the many victims of the common technique used by the Stasi known as Zersetzung (decomposition) which aimed at the systematic destruction of an individual’s professional and personal life disseminating malicious rumour and fear amongst one’s social circle. A kind of psychological harassment that effectively drained away the subject’s will to act, a more cost-effective tool than any kind of torture.
After he finishes playing the Sonata, Dreyman turns to Christa and says:
“Can anyone who has heard this music, I mean really heard it, still be a bad person?”
In that question lies the message of hope and human dignity that the film wants to convey. The demonstration that no matter how sophisticated the brainwashing techniques employed by totalitarian regimes are, they will never succeed in their evil mission because the human soul is simply too hard to obliterate.
In that cathartic moment the otherwise conformist writer decides to challenge the regime, and, inspired by the very same moral attitude, the Stasi agent becomes his accomplice.
The exemplar transformation of Captain Wiesler stands as a symbolic demonstration that even the coldest heart is capable of feeling empathy and compassion. Even the most inhuman character can respond to a sudden whisper, an implicit grace note. Whether in the people who suffer from brutal regimes, or even in those who have helped to perpetuate them, there is always the potential for exercising free will, for performing tiny, unpredictable acts of rebellion, and set in motion a quiet resistance which one day might even grow into a revolution.
It is this central claim proposed by the movie that has been subject to a controversial debate and still remains troubling. This idea clearly implied in the ending, that the Stasi captain is the “good man” of the Sonata.
As it could have been expected, revisiting the Stasi era rekindled an open wound in Germany where the film provoked a heated national debate between those who believe the film to be a worthy and necessary masterpiece and those who not only think it disrespectful towards the victims but also fear that, with its unrealistic, “romanticised” portrayal of the Stasi agent, it might foster a new form of Ostalgie or worst it might even justify a plea for absolution of the perpetrators.
Many critics accused von Donnersmarck of whitewashing the brutality of the Stasi by giving Wiesler the faint hint of a conscience. Others thought his transition to be highly implausible, since no agents were ever recorded to have sympathised with or protected their targets, as argued by Anna Funder author of “Stasiland”.
However, drama has its own imperatives and this is a movie not a documentary. At the end of his “director’s statement“, von Donnersmarck writes: “More than anything else, The Lives of Others is a human drama about the ability of human beings to do the right thing, no matter how far they have gone down the wrong path.”
While it can be argued that the director takes Wiesler’s rehabilitation a bit too far, to accuse him of historical relativism is also too harsh of a judgement.
Ten years after its release we can safely say that the net effect of The Lives of Others has certainly not been to unleash a wave of worldwide sympathy for former Stasi officers, on the contrary we can say it has exposed the horrors of that system to many international viewers who new little or nothing about it, even if in a stylized sometimes unrealistic account of what actually happened, especially in regards to Wiesler’s redemption.
The film must be praised for its honest expression of belief in humanity and for its memorable artistic merits.
At its heart, this is a universal film about people and its themes transcend time period or nationality. After all that’s what art must be: universal.