The Lives Of Others Film Essays

"Comrades, we must know everything."

Stasi boss Erich Mielke, Ministry head from November 1957 to November 1989

The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen) is an award-winning German film from 2006. It is the debut film of screenwriter and director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck.The film takes place in state-socialist East Germany and tells the story of Captain Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe), a stoic officer of the Secret Police, Ministerium für Staatssicherheit (also known as The Stasi). His job is to find and interrogate "enemies of socialism", people with Western sympathies or just plain wrong opinions. He is ordered by friend and superior Anton Grubitz to carry out a spying operation against playwright Georg Dreyman, whom they suspect is not what he seems. Wiesler and his men install numerous microphones in Dreyman's apartment, and his life is filled with sitting in the attic, listening in on Dreyman and his girlfriend, actress Christa-Maria Sieland.Eventually, Wiesler starts to warm up to the couple, noticing how empty and emotionless his own life is. He learns the real reason behind the operation, a jealous minister in love with Christa-Maria trying to get rid of his rival, and is disillusioned by his colleagues' selfish motivations. After the suicide of his director friend Albert Jerska, Dreyman decides to do something about the state's rigid censorship and writes an article about the secret suicide rates of East Germany for Western publications. Wiesler has to take more and more radical measures to protect him while Grubitz becomes increasingly suspicious of him.The Lives of Others won seven Deutscher Filmpreis awards and the Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 2006. It has been praised for its portrayal of Stasi, its employees and its victims as human beings trapped in an unforgiving dictatorship. Although the story is widely considered narmy by actual survivors of Stasi methods (no Stasi agent has ever been publicly known to regret his actions, let alone help his victims), the film gives a very heartfelt portrayal of life in socialist East Germany.

Trope examples:

  • Anti-Hero: Wiesler is working for the bad guys, but the story is about his journey into heroism.
  • Arc Words: "Good man."
  • Artistic License – History: Wiesler's actions would have been impossible for any real Stasi agent, because the Stasi knew that the watchmen have to be watched even more closely than the civilian populace - Stasi agents worked in mutually-surveilling teams when on duty, and were watched off-duty as well.
  • The Atoner: Wiesler.
  • Big Bad Duumvirate: Minister of Culture Bruno Hempf and Wiesler's superior, Anton Grubitz, who both personify the pervasive corruption and moral apathy sustaining East Germany's authoritarian system.
  • Big Bad Friend: Played with and ultimately subverted with Anton Grubitz. Despite initially coming across as a close friend and colleague of Wiesler, it soon becomes apparent that Grubitz views Wiesler as little more than a tool for his own political advancement.
  • Big Brother is Employing You
  • "Blackmail" Is Such an Ugly Word: Dreyman should be careful about using it.
  • Book-Ends: Dreyman's play that features near the beginning and the end.
    • Society Marches On: The two renditions couldn't be more different. The original staging is more or less an on-stage soap opera. The 1990's staging is very minimalist and expressionistic with a multiracial cast.
  • Brick Joke: Early on in the film, a young Stasi officer makes a politically dangerous joke in front of his superiors. After Wiesler is Reassigned to Antarctica in the letter-opening room, the same character informs him the wall has come down.
  • Broken Pedestal: Weisler truly believes in surveillance of citizens to weed out malcontents, but he's shaken when the minister starts abusing their power just to get in a married woman's pants.
  • Cacophony Cover Up: One of Dreyman’s friends puts on a very loud music album when he visits his apartment, under the assumption that’s he’s been bugged, before writing a note and telling him to meet in a park later.
  • Central Theme: To Be Lawful or Good.
  • Character Development: The movie's first scenes show Wiesler to be a brutal, emotionless interrogator. During his surveillance assignment, Wiesler is shown slowly beginning to care about Dreyman and Christa-Maria and eventually attempts to protect them from the Stasi. This is in many ways the core story of the film and Wiesler is its unlikely hero.
  • Chekhov's Gun: The red ink on the secret typewriter rubs off on Dreyman's fingers early in the film when he's hiding it. Towards the end, when he looks at his own records, a red smudged fingerprint on the last transcription page tells him that it was the file's author who had hidden the typewriter, just before the secret police searched Dreyman's apartment.
  • Code Name: All Stasi agents had one. Wiesler is known as HGW XX/7 (Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler, and his division). Dreyman is also assigned a codename, "Lazlo", though he only finds out years later when looking up his Stasi files.
  • Creator Cameo: The voice in the earpiece saying "The Wall has fallen" belongs to Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, the writer and director.
  • Dedication: In-story example: Dreyman dedicates his latest novel "To HGW XX/7, with gratitude".
  • Died in Your Arms Tonight: Christa-Maria dies in Dreyman's.
  • Distant Finale: The story ends in early 1985 but gets a double epilogue taking place after the fall of Communism.
  • Double Entendre: Non-sexual example. Wiesler is asked if the book he is buying is a gift. He replies, "No, it's for me."
  • Dramatic Irony:
    • Dreyman is oblivious to the fact that he's being watched 24/7, but the audience isn't.
    • Christa-Maria's relationship with the minister.
    • Christa-Maria's confessions to the Stasi.
  • Driven to Suicide: Jerska and Christa-Maria.
    • Also the subject of Dreyman's article. Despite keeping records of everything, from how many shoes he buys to how many books he reads, the Statistics Office has not published the suicide rates since 1977, when East Germany was second only to Hungary in its numbers.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: Wiesler ends his Stasi career steaming envelopes open in a basement, Christa-Maria kills herself, and the DDR and Stasi continue to be a menace. But in the end, Wiesler saved a good man's life, got some gratitude for it eventually, and communism eventually met the judgment of history four years and seven months later.
  • Eureka Moment: Near the end, Dreyman sees the red fingerprint on the final report. Watch his reaction - you can see him adding two and two and realizing that HGW was his "Guardian Angel" and saved his life right at that moment.
  • Fan Disservice: Both Christa-Maria's rape by the minister (he's fat and unattractive and she clearly feels disgust and humiliation), and the scene in which Wiesler hires a prostitute and tries in vain to make an emotional connection to her as well as a sexual one.
  • Faux Affably Evil: Grubitz initially comes across as a likable albeit cynical Stasi officer who has a friendly relationship with Wiesler. However, it soon becomes apparent that he's a ruthless opportunist who thoroughly enjoys abusing his authority at others' expense and is willing to destroy anyone who stands in the way of his lust for more power.
  • Heel–Face Turn: Wiesler.
  • Humble Hero: One of the earliest signs the audience gets that Wiesler's not actually a bad guy is that he refuses to sit at the officers' table at the Stasi headquarters, opting to eat at one of the common tables instead.

    Wiesler: Socialism has to start somewhere.

  • I Was Never Here: After the Stasi crew set up their equipment, Wiesler realizes that they've been seen by Dreyman's neighbor. He then goes to her and says that if she breathes a word of this to anyone, her daughter will lose her spot at the university.
  • Ignored Vital News Reports: Towards the end of the film, Grubitz tosses a newspaper into the backseat of his car. The headline announces that Mikhail Gorbachev has become the Premier of the USSR.
  • Karma Houdini: After coercing Christa into sex she was clearly repulsed by and vindictively ruining hers and other peoples' lives, not much happens to Minister Hempf. Sure, he loses power after the fall of the Berlin Wall but when Dreyman meets him by chance a couple of years later, he is doing pretty well for himself. In the film commentary, the director points out that this is based in reality, as many of the East German bigwigs landed on their feet after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
  • Kick the Dog: Grubitz's cruel trick on the underling he catches telling a joke about then-General Secretary Honecker.
    • Hempf telling Dreyman that he "couldn't satisfy" Christa-Maria - and this is after the Wall comes down, so there's literally no reason for it other than nastiness.
  • Lonely Piano Piece: "Sonata For A Good Man". See Manly Tears below.
  • Look Both Ways: Christa-Maria's death.
  • Manly Tears: Wiesler crying when he hears "Sonata for a Good Man", showing the start of his Heel–Face Turn.
  • Mood Whiplash: Wiesler listening intently in on Dreyman asking Christa not to leave is a truly touching scene, as it shows he's starting to care about them. Then Udo bursts in to take over the shift and: "Let me guess what they're doing..." [makes humping gestures]
  • The Muse: Christa-Maria to Dreyman.
  • Never Trust a Trailer: The theatrical trailer played up the suspense of living under surveillance and pressure in a socialist state. The "Stasi agent comes to care about his targets and goes to extreme lengths to protect them" angle wasn't that clear.
  • No Good Deed Goes Unpunished: Wiesler goes against the state to protect Georg and Christa and ends up demoted to opening letters in a cellar. Also, Wiesler choosing not to report the gold Mercedes smuggling attempt turns out to backfire on the people he was trying to help.
  • Not-So-Harmless Villain: In the first part of the film, Grubitz comes off generally as a buffoon-a sadist and a schemer, yes, but not particularly competent. However, when Wiesler comes to him suggesting that 24/7 surveillance of Dreyman be stopped, he immediately realizes he is hiding something, though he can't tell what it is.
  • Pet the Dog:
    • Wiesler gets in an elevator, and a plastic ball bounces in, followed by the little boy who owns the ball. The boy asks if Wiesler is really a Stasi member, saying "They're bad men who put men in jail, says my dad." To which Wiesler responds, "What's the name of your... ball?"
    • Dreyman learns HGW was Wiesler, and on seeing him humbled as a postal carrier, opts not to contact him, letting him retain what little dignity he has. Instead, he pays tribute to him in a book.
  • Product Placement: Der Spiegel, one of Germany's most prominent news magazines, is a major plot point. They even created the cover of the suicide issue used in the film, ensuring it met with their art standards.
  • Rape as Drama: Christa-Maria is coerced into submitting to the minister's advances, who forces himself on her in his car.
  • Reassigned to Antarctica: Wiesler is demoted to Department M (steaming open letters in a dark basement) for obstructing the Dreyman operation. The reason he's reassigned rather than fired, imprisoned, or executed is that Grubitz couldn't prove anything—and even if he could, it would implicate Grubitz himself.
  • Screw the Rules, I'm Doing What's Right!: At first Wiesler just covers for Georg and Christa-Maria because he feels bad for them, and because he is disgusted by the selfish motives of his superiors which have compelled him to spy on them. By the end, he gives up his entire career to save Georg's life.
  • Screw This, I'm Outta Here!: Wiesler and (eventually) everyone else in the office's reaction to the news that the Berlin Wall had opened. With the Wall fallen, it would have only been a matter of time before they were told to leave their posts.
  • Secret Police: The Stasi for East Germany.
  • Shower of Angst: Christa-Maria has one after her rape by the minister.
  • Shown Their Work:
    • All the spying equipment is authentic, brought in from museums. Even the machine they use to steam envelopes open.
    • The last scenes with Dreyman looking up his old surveillance files.
    • Much of the rest falls under Acceptable Breaks from Reality, such as a Stasi member performing a Heel–Face Turn and being able to lie (in reality, even the people doing surveillance were under surveillance).
  • Silence Is Golden: Some of the most powerful scenes are the ones with very little spoken dialogue and subtle nuances of emotion.
  • So Beautiful, It's a Curse: Beautiful actress Christa-Maria attracts unwanted attention and sexual advances from a powerful politician, leading eventually to her death.
  • The Stoic: Wiesler. He never smiles once in the whole film. The closest he gets is at the very end when he buys Dreyman's book. "No, it's for me."
  • We Have Ways of Making You Talk: The movie opens with a lecture on this; one student says that their methods are "inhumane" (which is quite possibly the most idiotic thing that a person could do, given the setting). Later Wiesler does this on Christa-Maria.
  • Well-Intentioned Extremist: Wiesler honestly believes he's doing a noble job, keeping his country secure from dissidents. He is actually fairly naive and doesn't believe anything's wrong with the "harsh but fair" system - until Hempf's actions leaves him disillusioned. Basically, the film is about a good man with an evil job.
  • Wham Line: When Dreyman states he didn't think he was being watched, Hempf practically laughs at the statement, telling him to go see for himself.

I finally got around to seeing The Lives of Others last week. For those of you who’ve missed the buzz, the film follows Stasi captain Gerd Wiesler and the couple he’s been assigned to surveil: writer Georg Dreyman and his actress girlfriend Christa-Maria Sieland. Each begins—whether from fear, conviction, or some mixture of the two—as a good, compliant subject of the East German state. (Dreyman, we’re told, has the distinction of being the country’s only “non-subversive” writer who’s read in the West.) And over the course of the film, each comes to see the need to stage a private rebellion—with varied results.

A few reviews I’ve read (though alas, I can’t now think where) complained that Wiesler’s transformation, at least, seems inadequately motivated—that we’re not given a convincing explanation of how this fanatical lifelong agent of the police state comes, over the course of a few days or weeks, to be prepared to risk everything, to abandon his deepest convictions, in order to protect a man he ought to regard as an enemy of the people. I actually had the opposite reaction: I thought the portrayal of Wiesler’s change was occasionally a bit ham-handed—though I suspect this is precisely a function of the difficulty of depicting such a profound reversal in this context. First, there’s just only so much time to deal with it, given that you’ve got three major characters’ arcs to deal with in about two hours. But both the setting and Wiesler’s character present added hurdles. As other reviews have noted, part of the genius of the movie is that it doesn’t focus on the obvious physical brutality of totalitarian regimes—the truncheons and gulags—but the psychological and motional brutality, the damage done to friendship and creativity by an atmosphere so thoroughly soaked in suspicion. Whatever is happening in Wiesler’s head, the one thing he clearly cannot do is talk to anyone about it, which required the filmmakers to hint at it more obliquely, but also (therefore) more bluntly. Moreover, while Ulrich Mühe does an absolutely stellar job of showing us the taciturn Wiesler’s internal metamorphosis without breaking his stoic façade too jarringly, this too presents some constraints.

So the filmmakers do occasionally succumb to the temptation to overcorrect. In one scene, Dreyman is playing the piano, and we cut to Wiesler listening in, visibly moved. That would probably have been sufficient—that we see Wiesler shed a single tear is almost a bridge too far. But what’s definitely excessive is the return to Dreyman, who utterly unprompted tells his girlfriend something along the lines of: “You know, I believe that nobody who heard this music even once, really heard it, could truly be a bad person.” Sorry, could you say that again? I missed what I’m supposed to be getting from this scene…

I don’t mean to harp too much on this: These little flaws stand out precisely because on the whole, the narrative arc feels so organic that these moments of palpable artifice stand out like the single slightly-flat string in an otherwise perfectly harmonious orchestra. At any rate, they do give us a clear picture of what’s going on with Wiesler.

The central characters in The Lives of Others can at least loosely be fit into the schema of orientations to authority developed by Lee Hamilton and Herbert Kelman in their excellent (if perhaps over-ambitiously titled) study Crimes of Obedience. Christa-Maria is primarily “rule oriented”: She understands, perhaps more acutely than Dreyman, the power of the state to either make or ruin her career and complies with the demands of its officials out of fear. Dreyman is “value oriented”: An idealist and ideasmith, his commitment to the socialist regime is sincere and principled, though contingent precisely because those principles provide an independent standard that the actual state may (indeed, does) fail to live up to. As Czeslaw Milosz notes in The Captive Mind (an excellent companion read for the film, by the by) it is this deepest level of commitment that totalitarian states ultimately demand from members of their intellectual classes.

Wiesler, by contrast, is “role oriented,” which in Kelman and Hamilton’s model makes him the most disposed to blind obedience: Support for the East German regime is not just something he practices (as with Christa-Maria) or even simply believes in (as Dreyman does) but rather a core part of who he is. His turn, then, needs to be understood in the context of this orientation. We see, first, that Wiesler is dismayed to realize that he’s been set on Dreyman because a high-ranking minister has designs on Christa-Maria and wants the writer out of the way. It’s not that Wiesler can have any illusions that this is the worst thing the Stasi does, by a longshot, but it undermines the integrity of his self-image as a Stasi agent; it is not, as he suggests to a superior, “what we signed up for.” His superior is untroubled by this, not because he is a more committed Stasi man, but because he is in one sense less committed, driven more by personal ambition that any deep satisfaction he gets from the role.

The more profound source of the change in Wiesler, though, is hinted at by the title. It is not just that his surveillance leads him to feel respect and sympathy, or even love, for Dreyman and Sieland (though there is that). It is rather that his encounter with the artists reveals the possibility of an alternative identity he finds more appealing. Wiesler determines to help Dreyman because he so clearly wants to be Dreyman—a desire most poignantly evidenced when, after a prostitute rebuffs his plea for a postcoital cuddle, he breaks into his subjects’ apartment to sit on the bed they share.

Great emphasis is placed in the film on the role exposure to art plays in Wiesler’s awakening—music, a pilfered book of Brecht poetry. (Compare Richard Rorty on the importance of art for liberal politics in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity.) And it may be this that strikes observers as implausible, especially given that Dreyman and Sieland are certainly steeped in art, and it is not, in itself, sufficient to motivate their rebellion. Indeed, quite a lot more is needed to account for Wiesler than Dreyman, not merely because he begins so much more tightly bound to the state, but because he comprehends the full consequences of his actions, the extent of the risk he’s taking, in a way that Dreyman never seems to.

But it does make sense if we bear in mind the different orientations of the characters. Dreyman’s change is, in a way, less profound because it flows from the recognition that his core values, which he holds throughout, are not after all being achieved by the regime. Wiesler knows the nature of the regime well enough; for him, it is the values that must change. But because of his role orientation, this cannot really be achieved by an argument or a new understanding, only by his direct apprehension of a way of being different from the one he’s known, through his direct and immersive encounter with “the lives of others.” It’s not that Brecht poetry in itself catalyzes this transformation through its intrinsic beauty, but that it gives Wiesler greater interior access to the people he’s observing and coming to love.

Numerous reviews suggest that Wiesler too falls in love with Christa-Maria over the course of the movie. And maybe he does. But my impression was that this was peripheral: His real romance is with Dreyman, and what he feels for Dreyman’s lover is probably better understood as a way of becoming closer to—becoming—Dreyman—an identification that increases as Wiesler fabricates a play he ascribes to the writer as cover for those times when Dreyman is actually working on his dissident essay. More than a political drama, or even an anti-totalitarian film, this is a story of the strange possibilities of human intimacy under the most unlikely conditions.

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