home pic

Farmington Hills: 248 851-3380 |  Ann Arbor: 734 213-3399

Michigan Psychoanalytic Institute & Society

Lives of Others - Kirsten Thompson

The Lives of Others (2006)
Florian Henkel von Donnersmarck
Reel Deel October 2007

By Kirsten Moana Thompson

Wiesler is an efficient Master spy and surveillance expert. He is shown as having superior instincts to those of his boss Grubitz (Ulrich Tukor), who is more powerful and senior than him, despite the fact they entered the Stasi at the same time, and Wiesler helped Grubitz pass their classes. Wiesler has a desire for complete mastery of Georg Dreyman's (Sebastian Koch) life. The overhead wide angle shot of Wiesler standing on a chalk diagram of Dreyman's apartment demonstrates this will to mastery, in a striking visual image. (We see the words, Bad, Schlafen, and CMS-for Christa Maria Sieland). Interestingly it is a visual and spatial image which doubles the spatial layout of Dreyman's apartment, a double image in the attic of the apartment which is being bugged a few floors below.

Wiesler and Dreyman are doubles. This doubling is suggested by the fact that both Wiesler and Dreyman adopt the same physical position hiding in the foyer of Dreyman's apartment at different points in the story-

In the first third of the film, Dreyman hides in the corner, unseen by Christa Maria, when she returns after having sex with Minister Hempf
In the last part of the film, Wiesler hides in the same position when he steals Dreyman's typewriter, unseen by Dreyman

Their physical meeting never happens, although Dreyman does see Wiesler on the street, but chooses not to confront him after all. Their relationship is always indirectly mediated through text (Wiesler's Stasi reports, which Dreyman later reads) or through sound (Wiesler listening to music and telephone conversations, as he writes his reports).

Not only does Wiesler seek surrogacy for his own shell-like existence through becoming increasingly obsessed with the lives of others, as the off stage, private lives of Dreyman and CMS become theater for him, (and which performance parallels their public onstage lives as renowned DDR theatrical professionals), but Wiesler also becomes our audience surrogate. That is, unsuspected by them, he is both an audience to their private lives, and our stand in, for cinema offers this voyeuristic power to see into private lives, and even character's states of mind, and to suggest visual and aural subjectivities.

But what is inaccessible or ambiguous to the Surveillance System? Although the system of surveillance depicted in the film (spies, informants, audio bugging) is shown to be frighteningly comprehensive, it is also always incomplete, leaving things inaccessible or ambiguous to Wiesler's master ears. For example, two narrative elements illustrate this: 1) Dreyman seeks the help of his next door neighbor Frau Meineke (Marie Gruber) to tie his tie (a woman who Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe) has already warned not to breathe a word to Dreyman about the tapping of his apartment) 2) Dreyman and his friends conspire together to smuggle his essay on DDR suicides out to West Germany for publication in Der Spiegel.

Here our privileged vision trumps sound and Wiesler does not know what we know (at least initially). He can hear nothing and cannot see the action we see presented in the frame. The editing shifts between Restricted and privileged narrative strategies. Privileged narration is where we see something a specific character can not see, and in the tie scene and the sequences relating to the Spiegel article shows us the limitations of the Stasi audio surveillance apparatus (visual and aural).

Although Wiesler's surveillance is of course mostly restricted to the auditory realm (with the exception of the video images of the exterior of Dreyman's apartment), as the film goes on, and partially to compensate for this visual deficit, Wiesler's auditory recordings are often matched with omniscient camerawork which takes us into Dreyman's apartment, and shows us what Wiesler can only subjectively imagine. One such important sequence is when Wiesler imagines Dreyman's and Christa Maria's reconciliation while reading his subordinate's report, showing us the complete disjunction between word and image (as Udo is oblivious to the significance of the events he reports on). Increasingly then this narrative strategy aligns Wiesler's growing empathy with the camera's ubiquitous and all seeing eye, which is at times omniscient and at times adopts Weisler's subjectivity, to suggest a consciousness which is undergoing transformation in the progression to becoming a "good man."

The scene in the bar between Wiesler and Christa Maria indicates that by this point in the story, Wiesler has shifted from a spy to a kind of therapist with empathic insight, or at least has a double register-here his apparent intuition as a theater fan (as he appears to Christa Maria) masks the fact that his knowledge of her is provided, not through Sieland's performative disclosure on stage as a great actress (where Wiesler tells her "you are more yourself on stage than you are here"), but offstage and unbeknownst to Christa, garnered through surveillance.

She says; Sie wissen wie ich bin? (So you know what I'm like?) Wiesler: Ich bin doch ihr Publikum. (I am your audience)

He then catches her out in a lie, asking her where she is going. She claims it is to see an old classmate (the same lie she tells Dreyman), yet we know (through privileged narration) that she is meeting the Minister. He says to her "Just now You weren't being yourself." No? No. Taking her glasses off as an unconscious acknowledgement that Wiesler really sees her, Christa interestingly then switches to talking about herself in the third person "So you know her well, this Christa Maria Sieland." He return the challenge to the second person. "You are a great artist. Don't you know that?" And she replies (acknowledging, what she perceives to be his intuitive insight) "you are a good Man." (Sie sind ein guter Mensch) (and which we know to be the film's larger thematic claim). {These words echo the previous scene between CMS and Dreyman}. (Here we might think of Brecht's Good Person of Szechuan).

Wiesler ultimately wants to and does become emotionally identified with Dreyman's life in 2 principal areas which are lacking in his own life

1): Emotional/intimacy deficits: Wiesler has no lover. He sees a prostitute for sex, and it is after the scene in which he asks the prostitute to stay longer, that he increasingly turns to an obsession with Dreyman's relationship with Christa Maria, and directly leads to the scene in the bar where he talks to her. Editing and narrative structure shapes our understanding of this connection.

2) Cultural deficits. Wiesler lives in an empty barren apartment, eating a rice dinner alone, watching TV alone. By contrast Dreyman's life is filled with theater, poetry (Brecht), intellectual and political debate and music (Sonata for a Good Man). The transformation in Wiesler's character is marked by the scene in which he enters Dreyman's apartment to look at the objects he had previously only heard on the tapes or imagined (the lover's bed, the backscratcher which is really a salad fork, the fountain pen). It is then that he steals Dreyman's Brecht book to read his poetry.

Second Order; The Redemptive Power of Art Thus, the second major order which escapes surveillance is that of art (specifically the composer Gabriel Yared's key leitmotif "Sonata for a Good Man" which Wiesler listens to as Dreyman plays, and the Brecht poem "Erinnerung an die Marie A" (1920) (Memories of Marie A) a brief excerpt from his collection, "Animal Poems" which Wieland steals from Dreyman's apartment (BTW: the director says that Brecht's daughter wouldn't give them permission to use the excerpt, and so the original scene which reads the whole poem, was cut for copyright reasons.). The Brecht poem is about the erasure of memory. A lover remembers an encounter with a woman from the past, whom he kissed, but the memory which stays with him is of the cloud he sees in the sky, and what is forgotten now is the woman, and the kiss.

As Dreyman says, in playing the Sonata which his friend Jerske had given him shortly before his suicide, "Can anyone who has heard this music, I mean truly heard it, be a bad person?" (this is inspired by the famous quotation from Lenin to Maxim Gorki in speaking of Beethoven's Appassionato Sonata (" if I keep listening to it, I won't finish the Revolution". Because it made him want to "stroke" heads instead of "smash" them.

In the dramatic context, this is a question which Dreyman poses to himself, confronting his own guilt for working under a compromised undemocratic system, and not challenging the state. Of course, ultimately this ethical question is also addressed to Wiesler (here Dreyman's unknown audience), who in responding affectively to the music (crying in one key shot, or earlier smiling while reading the Brecht poem) and in his later actions will show us, that he is indeed a good man, and can redeem his earlier actions, by protecting Dreyman by stealing the typewriter, and so on

Here the film suggests that sound has a redemptive potentiality-that it can transform both Dreyman, and Wiesler, each in their own way imperfect, and profoundly compromised by their actions under the DDR, and that through the aesthetic identification which occurs through sound which Wiesler and Dreyman each individually undergo (and the symbiotic mutual identification each undergoes in relationship to the other), that each can ultimately realize their tendencies to be "good men."

But as Timothy Garten Ash in the NY Times Review of Books reminds us, "Surely we think of Roman Polanski's The Pianist, with the German officer deeply affected by the Polish Jewish pianist's playing of Chopin, and therefore sparing his life-as Wiesler now spares Dreyman. Surely we think, too, of the educated Nazi killers who in the evening listened to the music of Mendelssohn, then went out the next morning to murder more Mendelssohns. Did they not really hear the music?" In other words, Ash points out that the personal capacity to appreciate the aesthetic does not necessarily lead to ethical transformation. The title of our film Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others) underscores its problematic humanism, because it suggests that the redemptive capacity of art (music, poetry) can produce this ethical and imaginative transformation in the relationship between self and other. The film suggests that this capacity is based partially on its limitations (the visual deficit which escapes the auditory surveillance system only serves to intensify the power of the auditory), thereby leading us to the conclusion that the individual necessarily can, should, and does transcend the political apparatus of which he is a part.