by Joel Bocko
#66 in Best of the 21st Century?, a series counting down the most acclaimed films of the previous decade.
Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe) is a top Stasi agent, not the kind whose flashy skills and pride draw attention to himself, but the kind who quietly and methodically does his job, never questions authority, and seems to actually believe in the principles he operates under – or at least has never given them enough thought to really object. Then again, it’s hard to tell; the very reticence which makes him an ideal snoop and a hard-to-read interrogator means that we can’t quite be sure what’s going on in his mind: is he a loyal soldier, or merely someone who knows his place? German director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s debut film, the 2006 winner for Best Foreign Film, The Lives of Others is about Wiesler’s slipping grasp on his own stoic rigidity, internal and consequentially external as well. The suggestive title conflates state-sanctioned snooping with sympathetic voyeurism, and indeed as Mühe spies on a bourgeois artist couple, playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) and actress Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck), his impassive surveillance gives way to emotional involvement – eventually one will have to give in to the other. Village Voice critic J. Hoberman has astutely noted the similarity to Wim Wenders’ seminal Wall- era Wings of Desire, writing, “No less than Bruno Ganz’s empathetic seraphim, Wiesler longs to be human.” Indeed, after listening in on a robust lovemaking session, Wiesler orders himself a home visit from a busy (and buxom) prostitute; though perhaps physically satisfying, it doesn’t quite scratch the spiritual itch Wiesler has been developing. Perhaps more telling is an encounter on an elevator just prior. A little boy, bouncing a ball casually asks Wiesler if he’s “really Stasi”; asked if he knows what this even means, the boy inadvertently informs on his father’s bilious characterization of the secret police. “What is the name of your f-” Wiesler stops himself, and pauses: “…of your ball?” The little boy chuckles and runs off, not knowing how close he came to turning the old man in. And Wiesler probably wonders what possessed him to show mercy, a quality he may not even have realized was within his power until now.
Filled with moments like these, The Lives of Others means to show us Wiesler’s development of a conscience, facilitated inadvertently by the people he’s spying upon. Dreyman and Sieland struggle with their own duty to their dissident friends, suspect each other of betrayals, fall back upon art to manage their wounds (turning to the piano in a time of grief, Dreyman calls forth tears not just in himself but in his secret listener, in a moment that goes perhaps too far). Meanwhile, Wiesler is able to give release to a side of himself which is usually repressed: the aesthete, the romantic, the humanist. There are a number of compelling threads running through the film. In an echo of Hoberman’s comparison to the all-seeing, non-feeling angels, Wiesler can be viewed as the omniscient director who slowly invests himself and falls prey to his own subjects. (Indeed, he lays out a stage blueprint of the apartment in the attic overhead, pacing it as he listens to the conversations unfold from room to room; furthermore, the typed reports read like stage directions.) Or, more fittingly, he can be seen as a spectator rather than a creator of art, but one who has the power to intervene and alter the course of the narrative if he wishes (the moment where he runs into Sieland in a bar has an uncanny effect, as if in a book of short stories one character has slipped into another’s – or as if the reader himself has just entered the text). There is also the notion of symmetry; both Dreyman and Wiesler are pros in a world of mediocrities – others know how to burrow and get ahead in the Party apparatus, but these two seem more concerned with doing their respective jobs than making waves one way or another. When Wiesler goes to the theater and views Dreyman through binoculars, we can sense his chilly respect, and more than a tinge of jealousy, right away. He’s also the first to predict Dreyman’s potential for rebellion (though it’s an apparatchik’s affair with Sieland which leads the apartment to be bugged) – perhaps sensing in the playwright the same dangerous sense of self-assurance he himself possesses.
Following a classroom scene in which Wiesler’s ruthlessness is made heavy-handed (and, knowing what we know about confessions under duress, ineffective) the scenes in the theater play very strongly. The thematic undercurrents, previously mentioned, are one reason, another is the control of point of view. We see Dreyman and Sieland from above, from Wiesler’s balcony – unaware of his gaze, they seem both dolls at play in their fantasy world and figures glimpsed from across a yawning divide, real but somehow unapproachable. The staging here suggests the film’s world in a microcosm, but unfortunately Donnersmarck does not hold to this controlled perspective throughout the film. Immediately following the performance, we attend a party from which Wiesler is absent; later, as he listens to the couple we see and hear them with unlimited access. By choosing not to filter our experience through Wiesler’s, Donnersmarck mitigates a potentially rewarding narrow view, one which would allow our consciousness – and conscience – to grow alongside that of the Stasi snoop. Instead, the drama is underwhelming because our scope never widens and our moral sense does not develop. The film has been widely praised; it is indeed well-made and compelling. But it lacks a strong vision. Neither in writing nor shooting, does Donnersmarck forcefully direct us; we are allowed to see too much, and to spend too much time with Dreyman and Sieland without Wiesler’s intervening presence. Meanwhile (spoiler alert), Wiesler’s transition from impartial observer to tacit sympathizer to outright falsifier seems rather arbitrary; he reads some Brecht and reflects on his own lonely sex life, but something about his development is not quite organic. As the film – wisely, I think – has chosen not to key us into Wiesler’s subjective world, we need to recognize his transformation through external signifiers, not in his own behavior but in what he sees and hears. Since the scenes in the artists’ apartment generally unfold as if we were there with them – rather than overhearing their conversations and grasping at straws, slowly coming to understand them ourselves – and since that party scene without Wiesler tips us off to their personalities, our relationship with them is not allowed to grow in tandem with Wiesler’s. (This formal approach is not a given; think The Conversation, where we see the characters in close-up but the sound is distorted – not that this would have been the appropriate approach here, but the conventional see-in-normal-terms-what-he’s-hearing device is not the only option.)
The movie could also benefit from a greater ambiguity: before long, it becomes clear that Wiesler is completely committed to his supposed victims; as he suppresses information, weeps, and covers his tracks we don’t get enough of the tug-of-war between professionalism and humanity which animated the agent in that theater scene. One suspects there should be more of a struggle between the agent’s reserve and his sympathy; that perhaps, if only for a while, he should find himself able to balance an appreciation of Dreyman’s and Sieland’s finer qualities with a duty to his job, the way that power-hungry buddy Anton Grubitz (Ulrich Tukur) is able to balance one-of-the-guys subversive humor with terrifying authoritarian assertiveness. By making it as if Wiesler’s sympathies automatically mitigate his dedication and chilly discipline, Donnersmarck undercuts a potentially rich field of tension and complexity in his story. Wiesler leaves the dark side all too quickly, and there is no sense that, in forty or so years of life under the German Democratic Republic, he’s learned how to compartmentalize his higher feelings. Surely the citizens of East Germany, including the Stasi agents and the hundreds of thousands of informers, were not soulless automatons nor even self-hating cowards, but people who had learned one of those most diabolical yet universal human skills. That would be the ability to immunize themselves slowly, in some cases numb to the appeals of conscience, in others treating conscience as a kind of poetic sensibility to be put aside with other childish things when ideological duty, self-preserving selfishness, or some combination thereof comes a-calling. Initially it seems Wiesler, with his intensity and perceptiveness in the theater balcony, belongs to the latter type (and is perhaps even a Salieri, whose jealous appreciation of those who are free, unshared by the powerful but dim around him, actually facilitates his cruelty towards them). Yet the quickness with which his stoic facade crumbles and his uncertainty reveals itself seems to suggest that he was indeed comfortably numb. This is less compelling than the other option, and it also remains unclear what exactly in the “lives of others” broke through Wiesler’s personal Wall.
Despite flaws and limitations, The Lives of Others reaches a powerful climax by pitting individual actions against the rumbling apparatus of Fate, here embodied by the police state. There’s something Greek about the film’s representation of life in a totalitarian society, where the fragile innocence of the unsuspecting citizens can be crushed like a butterfly on a wheel – this is the age-old tragedy of cruel, powerful, careless gods, out of boredom, ambition, desire, stepping upon deeply-felt but helpless human emotions. How many old Olympians lusted after a woman, making her and her loved ones’ lives miserable, all to satiate their own restless desire? In this sense, if in few others, the flabby, corrupt Minister Bruno Hemf would be no stranger to Zeus. Meanwhile, Wiesler resembles Prometheus, stealing from the gods, giving to man, entailing his own punishment in the process (steaming letters in the bowels of bureaucracy, then delivering advertisements after the fall of the Wall). Since the movie has shown itself uncomfortable with subjective limitations, it unsurprisingly finds its footing in objective tragedy, taking a step back to observe the human figures falling, flailing, occasionally transgressing, and then suffering the consequences. There is something achingly poetic – cruel and touching – in the way the inevitable march of power interacts with flickers of human conscience. The conclusion cannot be called pat exactly (there has been enough pain and gloom to mitigate that accusation), but it is perhaps too neat, tying up loose ends with a bit too much precision (Dreyman’s visit to the archives is, in particular, a little too on-the-nose, voiceover of key points and all). All in all, the film’s story seems heavily influenced by Kieslowski, sharing the Polish master’s fondness for character interactions presented as twists of fate, yet the style lacks his chilly and moody sense of authority. Nonetheless, this is an effective and often moving film, fascinating for the way it disrupts a passive schema with individual action. Movies are always about the “lives of others”, and often life itself is too – The Lives of Others‘ strength is to remind us both how little, and how much, we can do to alter said lives’ courses.