The Lives of Others

The Lives of Others (IMDB) opens with a classroom lecture in a East German classroom in the early 1980s. A Stasi (secret police) instructor, Gerd Wiesler, teaches his students about the best methods for conducting interrogations of suspected political subversives. Playing an audio recording of one interrogation, Wiesler expresses complete confidence in the surveillance methods, even when a student asks whether it’s appropriate to keep a suspect awake for over 24 hours, adding that “it’s inhuman.” It was tempting at this point to identify resonances between these interrogation techniques and the indefinite detention of suspected terrorists in Guantanamo, but The Lives of Others, writer-director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s feature film debut, turned out to be far more interesting as an account of the paranoia and absurdity at the heart of East Germany’s totalitarian state just as it is on the verge of collapse (in this sense, Lives of Others reminded me of Kieslowski’s mid-career Polish films, including Blind Chance and Camera Buff).

After the classroom scene, Wiesler, along with other members of the Stasi, attends the performance of a play by Georg Dreyman, described as one of East Germany’s few “non-subversive” writers. Still, the Stasi suspect that Dreyman may be becoming increasingly political, and Wiesler is assigned to spy on the writer, listening in on his apartment in alternating twelve-hour shifts with another member of the secret police. During these scenes, Wiesler is initially the perferct example of bureaucratic competence, carefully detailing Georg’s daily activities and writing them up in reports that he types up white listening to the apartment on clunky headphones. On Dreyman’s birthday, for example, Wiesler describes the birthday party and noting that Dreyman’s girlfriend, Christa-Maria stayed after, speculates “presumably they have intercourse.” Of course, as J. Hoberman observes, Wiesler’s initial attraction to Dreyman is no doubt the opportunity to live vicariously through the charismatic writer having an affair with one of East Germany’s most talented actresses (Hoberman is more critical than I am of the film’s “squishy humanism”).

Eventually, Wiesler begins to develop some sympathy for Dreyman, recognizing his humanity and he begins working subtly to protect the writer from further persecution, making him kind of a Stasi version of Harry Caul, a comparison that comes up in this very good Cinematical review by Martha Fischer from the Toronto International Film Festival. This sympathy works through the doubled identification that is produced through the surveillance subplot. Through cinematic identification we see the world through the perspective of Wiesler, but within the film, similar processes of identification allow (or require) Wiesler to see the world through Dreyman’s more romantic and humanistic perspective. At the same time, Dreyman’s actions are not unambiguous. He has been favored by the state because of his “political neutrality,” but several of his colleagues, including the director who interpreted several of his plays for the stage, have been far less lucky.

The Lives of Others is one of the more compelling films I’ve seen in some time. Stephanie Zacharek’s Salon review conveys much of what I like about the film. While von Donnersmarck’s movie never shies away from “the repressiveness of the GDR,” it also shows compassion for the characters who inhabit that world.

Update: While I was waiting for this entry to publish, I was skimming Alison Willmore’s IFC Blog review of Lives, and I think she may be right to point out that the GDR is painted in relative absolutes, noting that the film fails to acknowledge that the GDR had its supporters. She also adds that von Donnersmarck states that he made the film in response to his “disgust” at the ostalgie, the popular nostalgia for the GDR. I still think the film is a bit more complicated than Willmore suggests. Even the petty tyrants within the Stasi are seen as products of an overarching system, one that seems fully aware that it is on the verge of collapse.

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