But it also looks forward to a time when technology threatens to make East Germans of us all.
Its protagonist, Gerd Wiesler, is a captain in the Stasi, the communist government’s fearsome security apparatus. Over the course of the film, he undergoes a remarkable metamorphosis, transforming from someone who does his duty like a machine into a man who risks everything by refusing to perform it.
Assigned by his ass-kissing supervisor to monitor Georg Dreyman, a celebrated playwright whose actress wife, Christa-Maria Sieland, is coveted by a high-ranking official, Wiesler soon realises that his target is a law-abiding citizen and that the surveillance operation is being conducted for reasons that have nothing to do with state security.
Later, when a theatre director friend of Dreyman who has been blacklisted commits suicide, the playwright becomes increasingly disenchanted with the state. He begins to engage in the kind of dissident activity that he was supposedly suspected of previously.
Wiesler decides to protect Dreyman. Instead of transcribing what the playwright says, he fabricates conversations to create a cover story. Eventually, his failure to come up with dirt leads him to be demoted.
The film’s coda takes place after reunification. Wiesler is now working as a postman.
Walking his rounds one day, he sees a book by Dreyman in the window of a shop. He goes inside to purchase it and realises from the dedication, written to his Stasi code name, that it’s about him. Like many people under surveillance in East Germany, the playwright had reviewed the files about him and realised that he had been saved by an anonymous benefactor.
It’s an inspiring story, communicated with a deeply felt humanism, the sort likely to bring a tear to one’s eye. Indeed, those who found fault with the film complained that it was a little too inspiring.
Experts on the East German surveillance state argued that it would have been impossible for an individual like Wiesler to deviate from his professional script.
Responding to von Donnersmarck’s comparison of The Lives of Others to the Stephen Spielberg film Schindler’s List, one of the film’s detractors argued that there were no Schindlers in East Germany.
Christoph Hein, the East German writer on whom the playwright in The Lives of Others was loosely based, asked the director to have his name removed from the credits after seeing an early screening because the narrative deviated too sharply from his experiences.
In a 2019 piece, Hein described The Lives of Others as a “dark fairy tale” in the mode of The Lord of the Rings.
Although Hein’s 1989 play Knights of the Round Table is a political allegory about an East Germany on the verge of collapse, this comparison with J.R.R. Tolkien’s book was not intended as a compliment.
“Everything that I had told him a few years before had been colourfully mixed up and dramatically or, more precisely, melodramatically reassembled to good effect,” he said. “Sitting in the theatre, I watched my life with astonishment. That wasn’t how it was, but that way it was much more impactful.”
Although melodrama is a negative term for Hein, it holds the key to understanding what makes The Lives of Others such a powerful film.
When we think about self-reflexivity in cinema, our minds gravitate to the work of directors who experimented with form. Jean-Luc Godard is a prime example.
Von Donnersmarck avoids this approach. The Lives of Others follows the conventions of cinematic storytelling. Yet the film still manages to be self-reflexive. It just does on the level of content instead of form.
The blacklisted theatre director takes solace in the poetry of Bertolt Brecht. So does Dreyman. And they inspire Wiesler, a man who seemed completely unliterary at the start of the picture, to read it as well.
Brecht held an unimpeachable status in East Germany. Following his investigation by the House Un-American Activities Committee, he decided to settle in the DDR, building an ensemble company from scratch.
It was also during this period that Brecht was finally able to perfect his idea of epic theatre. As codified in his theoretical statements, epic theatre was intended to counter Aristotle’s conception of tragedy. Instead of making audiences feel, Brecht wanted to make them think.
Because he was too great a writer to obey his own rules, however, Brecht created characters, such as Mother Courage, who inspire sympathy in spite of the devices intended to prevent it.
The Lives of Others seems to have this Brecht in mind.
In the film, the reading of Brecht directly contradicts the tenets of epic theatre. It not only serves to reinforce Dreyman’s identification with his deceased friend but also helps Wiesler to identify with Dreyman.
At first, it might seem as though von Donnersmarck is having a sly joke at Brecht’s expense, turning someone who was basically the poet laureate of East Germany into a subversive.
But The Lives of Others is ultimately too sincere for such an interpretation.
The film doesn’t want us to prioritise feeling over thinking but to recognise that we cannot do without either.
In Wiesler’s case, doing the right thing requires that he become a kind of playwright, caring about his characters enough to give them the story they need. The only way he can do that is to identify with the target of his surveillance.
These days, ordinary people living in representative democracies — much less those who have to navigate totalitarian states — find themselves wielding a scaled-down version of Wiesler’s power. In their interactions on the internet, they can either identify people as suspect, or identify with them on the basis of their shared humanity.
The only way to think clearly about this dilemma is to feel it.
That’s why, as we confront a world in which almost everyone is under impersonal surveillance and where anyone with a mobile phone has the power to make its impact personal, The Lives of Others has the power to inspire resistance to this technological totalitarianism.
Photograph courtesy of diskotsu. Published under a Creative Commons license.