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.