Lives of Others - Bruce Russell
By Bruce Russell
Three good questions to ask of any film are: (1) "What is the film about?", (2) "What, if any, interesting questions does it raise?", and (3) "What, if any, answers does it propose to those questions?" The answers to these questions are fundamental because answers to more technical questions, questions about the acting, the lighting, the music and sound, the costumes, the time ordering of scenes, etc., can then be understood in terms of how these things contribute to what the film is about, the questions it raises, and to the answers it proposes.
I think The Lives of Others is about how some people change from being bad to being good, how others do not, and the reasons for the difference. It raises the question of what it is for a person to be bad, and what to be good. It also raises the question of what causes people to change from being bad to being good, and makes us wonder how frequently it occurs in real life. I don't think the film answers the philosophical question of what it is for a person to be bad and what to be good. I will address that question myself. I think the film's answer to the question of what causes a person to change from being bad to being good is being touched by love and affection. I will cite evidence from the film to support this claim.
The philosophical question of what it is for someone to be a bad, and what to be good is not a question about what causes someone to be a bad or a good person, and so is not a psychological question. Rather, it's a question about what the essential nature of a good or bad person is. In this respect it is like the question of what the essential characteristics of a bachelor are (e.g., being an unmarried male of marriageable status), not like the question of why some people remain bachelors while others do not. The psychological question has two parts: (a) is it possible for people to change from being bad to being good, and (b) if so, what causes that change.
First, the philosophical question. At the outset, we should note that bad and good come in degrees. We might imaginatively place them along a line with abject evil on the left, merging into plain garden variety evil, followed by bad, followed by mixed, followed by good, and ending on the right with saintliness. On the far left I would put Hitler, and his gang of Nazi thugs, and on the far right Jesus, Mother Teresa, and Bishop Tutu. At the beginning of the film, I would place Minister Hempf in the category of "evil," his underling, Lieutenant Grubitz, a little further to the right, Christa-Maria Sieland in the mixed category, and Georg Dreyman in "good." At the beginning of the film, I would place Captain Wiesler alongside Lieutenant Grubitz in the "evil" category but at the end of the film in the category of "very good," along with Georg Dreyman. Because of Christa's remorse for betraying Dreyman, I move her a little to the right by the end of the film. As I see it, Christa and Dreyman become slightly better people by the end of the film, Wiesler improves dramatically, Grubitz falls back, and Hempf remains his evil self throughout.
What is it about a person that justifies us in categorizing him or her as bad or good? Some might say that possession of virtues is what makes a person good, but evil men can possess some virtues. I agree with political humorist Bill Maher who said that it took courage for the terrorists to fly a plane into the World Trade Center. I'd add that it took perseverance and loyalty among the participants to execute the plan. Courage, perseverance, and loyalty are good traits, but these were not good men. Besides having the virtues, to be a good person you must be disposed to act morally, that is, disposed to do what is morally right and not do what is morally wrong. To be a very good person, you must be disposed to do what is supererogatory, that is, what is beyond the call of duty. You must be disposed to make personal sacrifices to do what is morally good, not just disposed to do what is morally right. If you are saintly, you are willing to make enormous sacrifices to promote the good.
I have couched my account of what it is to be good in terms of dispositions rather than acts. That is because a morally good person can on occasion do, or want to do, something morally wrong, and a morally bad person can on occasion do, or want to do, something morally right. Those occasional actions or intentions are not enough for that person to be morally good, or morally bad. Being good and being bad are character traits, and character traits involve dispositions to act.
I say that Minister Hempf was evil because he had a disposition to do what is wrong. He spied on people and used Christa-Maria to satisfy his own sexual desires. He had no compunctions about punishing her for deceiving him. Near the end of the film he talks with Georg Dreyman in the lobby where both of them have stepped out from the performance of Dreyman's play, "The Lives of Others." He informs Dreyman that his apartment had been under "full surveillance" and then cruelly and gratuitously adds that they knew that Dreyman "couldn't give little Christa what she needed," the implication being that he, Herr Minister Hempf, could fulfill Christa sexually while Dreyman could not. When Dreyman leaves, the evil grin that brushes across Hempf's lips is a sure sign of his thoroughly evil character.
In the beginning Captain Wiesler isn't much better than Hempf. He cooly and coldly interrogates a man for over 40 hours until he breaks down and provides Wiesler with the information he seeks. He teaches a class on how to interrogate people and on what signs to look for to determine whether they are lying or telling the truth. He shows the students how a cloth is placed under the seat of the person being questioned so that later dogs can use its scent to track down that person if he escapes. He puts a tiny little mark, with big and sinister implications, next to the name of a student who complains that long interrogations are inhuman. He tells Dreyman's neighbor, Mrs. Meinike, that her daughter will lose her spot at the university if Mrs. Meinike says anything about seeing Wiesler come out of Dreyman's apartment. At the beginning of the movie, Wiesler is not a nice man.
Christa-Maria Sieland has a character flaw that makes me place her in the mixed category. She reveals to Captain Wiesler in a bar that she is afraid that she will betray the man she loves "for art," that is for her acting career. And she does by having sexual encounters with Hempf, and then again when she reveals to the Stasi that Dreyman wrote the article that appeared in Spiegel and tells them where he hides his typewriter. After stepping in front of a truck to kill herself, she says to Wiesler who holds her in his arms, "I was too weak. I can never right what I've done wrong." And she speaks the truth.
While different people in the film display different degrees of badness and goodness, some change. Early in the film Minister Hempf brings to the fore the central theme of The Lives of Others when he says to Dreyman, "But that's what we all love about your plays: your love for mankind, your belief that people can change. Dreyman, no matter how often you say it in your plays, people do not change!"
However, Captain Wiesler does change. The change in his behavior starts with his not asking the young boy in the elevator his father's name after the boy said that his father told him that the Stasi are bad men who put people in prison. It continues when he does not warn the border guards of what he believes (though falsely), namely, that a car will be smuggling Paul Hauser across the border. And it ends in his taking a huge risk to remove the typewriter from its hiding place in Dreyman's apartment.
Why did he change? Why did he stop treating people so badly and then eventually take a big risk to protect Dreyman? I believe it starts with the visit of a prostitute to his apartment whom he asks to stay after she has serviced him. It continues when he takes a book by Brecht from Dreyman's apartment and reads in it of the joys of love. Perhaps it culminates in his listening to Dreyman play "Sonata for a Good Man" on the piano, a piece that was written for Dreyman by his good friend, the director Albert Jerska, who committed suicide because he was blacklisted and thereby prevented from practicing his craft. Wiesler listens intently, and is visibly moved, by the sonata. Playing it prompts Dreyman to say, "Lenin says of Beethoven's Sonata, 'If I keep listening to it, I won't finish the revolution'." [von Donnersmark says that in researching the film he read a quote from Lenin saying that he could not listen to the Sonata, for then he would want to stroke the heads of children rather than breaking them open.] Or perhaps Wiesler's transformation continues after he talks in the bar with Christa, for whom he obviously has affection, and she calls him "a good man." Ultimately, it is love and affection that soften Wiesler's heart and turn him into a good man.
Of course, one wonders whether in real life Hempf is more often right in his cynical view that people do not change than the film would lead us to believe. Even in the movie Hempf and Lt. Colonel Grubitz do not change. And does love really change people for the better or are most like Christa and remain weak, or evil, even when they are truly loved? For the most part, can love only bring people to feel guilt, remorse, and maybe even shame without being able to change their dispositions to act? These are questions the film raises but to which no fictional film can provide the answer.
A fictional film might prompt us to recall evidence from actual experience that bears on the answers. But even here we must be careful that the evidence we have is not merely anecdotal and is really a representative sample of events that cause a change of character. As Noel Carroll, a well-known philosopher of film has written, no fictional film can by itself give us reason to believe that men are taller than monkeys even if in it they are so depicted. Likewise, no fictional film can by itself give us reason to believe that sometimes people change from being bad to being good (and vice versa) or that when they do it is because of love and affection. I would add that no fictional film that does not contain explicit philosophical argumentation can answer philosophical questions, though it can raise them. If I am right about this, then The Lives of Others cannot answer philosophical questions about the nature of goodness and badness or empirical questions about the possibility, frequency and causes of change. But like all fictional films, it can raise such questions, and that is their chief value. It is up to us, with our philosophical arguments and empirical evidence, to address these questions, as I hope we will later today.
Department of Philosophy
5057 Woodward Ave., Rm. 12001
Wayne State University Detroit, MI 48202