Essay #2, The Lives of Others

For my second paper in the essay series-see here for an explanation of how it works-I wrote about The Lives of Others (2006, dir. Florian von Donnersmarck). I don’t consider this my best work, with the film-as-a-whole papers frequently requiring a commitment level that a busy/lazy college student can only sometimes match. Unaltered from the original except for the picture.

Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe) bei seiner Arbeit.
History Repeats Itself in The Lives of Others

The Lives of Others (Florian von Donnersmarck, 2006) primarily focuses on East Germany in 1984, specifically on an officer for the Stasi secret police, Gerd Wiesler, monitoring a famous playwright and his actress girlfriend (Georg Dreyman and Christa-Maria Sieland, respectively). While the bulk of the film’s storyline takes place over a few months of surveillance in 1984, there is also a significant portion of time dedicated to 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell, and the aftermath resulting from the bulk of the events that happened in 1984 during the 1990s. During this time, we see that while time may go by and people may grow older, many things stay the same even when there are drastic lifestyle changes-history repeats itself, and repeated or similar events in both 1984, and 1989 or beyond show that even when walls collapse and regimes fall, change is still a very gradual thing and old habits will die hard, both on an individual, personal scale and a larger one.

Wiesler attends a play of Dreyman’s early in the film along with a superior (Anton Grubitz), with the Minister of Culture, Bruno Hempf, also in the audience [7:43-8:07]. Sieland is the lead actress, and the play makes even a common worker at a factory look like a heroine of the people. We have also established that Dreyman is respected as a writer even outside of Germany-his works are read even in the western world, and because of this, the party is fond of him and gives him creative freedom [9:37-9:39]. Wiesler is immediately suspicious about Dreyman’s loyalties to the party and suggests that he be monitored [9:27], with Hempf having similar ideas simply because he desires Sieland sexually [10:57-11:08 and 14:22]. Dreyman and Hempf have a conversation after the play ends over the nature of people-Hempf thinks people never change and Dreyman thinks people do change [16:03-16:16]. The film clearly takes Dreyman’s side in this debate throughout with regards to Wiesler, but is a little murkier beyond that, as most of the remaining characters are fundamentally the same person by the time the film ends, and even Wiesler’s redemption is not much of a stretch.

Also worth noting are some of the details in the play-Sieland’s character in the play, while working the factory assembly line, informs the other women that one of their husbands has died by informing them that he was “crushed by the mighty wheel.” [8:19] She bemoans her visions but also encourages the deceased’s wife to go home and mourn her loss [8:35-8:44]. The factory is clearly an allegory for Germany on Dreyman’s end, and the “mighty wheel” refers to the circle of life, but what the visions mean on a more literal level for us, the audience, will not become obvious for several hours.

Dreyman’s apartment is bugged by Wiesler and his team in an extended sequence where they put wires behind the light switches in almost every room [20:18-22:22], with Wiesler having the ability to monitor every conversation or action that happens in the apartment from his station in the apartment building’s cellar [22:10], but we see that Wiesler is not simply a cog in the government-he actively realizes after some time that Dreyman is not overly critical of the government despite wanting his fellow artists to have more creative freedom [31:58-32:24] and defending a blacklisted friend even when he shuns others out of anger [30:45-31:33], and Wiesler later sees Sieland being forcibly seduced by Hempf for career purposes [41:10-43:03]. It goes unsaid, since Wiesler is a lonely man who interacts with a very small number of people throughout the film’s runtime and does not make his feelings very clear, but he actively knows that Dreyman does not deserve the monitoring, and he even rings the apartment’s doorbell so that Dreyman is made aware of Sieland’s relationship with Hempf [43:21-44:11]. We also see that Wiesler truly respects Dreyman’s craft when he is shown reading a book stolen from the apartment [51:07-51:52], in one of the few activities unrelated to work or surveillance in some way that Wiesler performs throughout the film.

Wiesler is not in a position to do anything particularly proactively, especially when Grubitz punishes a fellow co-worker at lunch in front of Wiesler for making an inoffensive joke about party leader Erich Honecker by transferring him to a far more menial job [37:24-39:27], despite Grubitz hypocritically making a joke of his own immediately afterwards [39:41-39:51]. Doubts begin to arise for Wiesler about his job when not only Dreyman but Sieland make heavy allusions to him being a “good person” deep down without even knowing that he is monitoring them, in a strong example of the film using parallelism. Dreyman’s allusion is much more vague, as he plays a piano piece upon hearing news of a suicide [52:12-54:12] and asks Sieland “Can anyone who has heard this music, I mean truly heard it, really be a bad person?” [54:34-54:42] while a clearly touched Wiesler cries in his monitoring station [53:41-53:46], showing the answer for the audience. Later, Sieland meets Wiesler at a café when she is depressed over the Hempf situation [1:02:27-3:36] and he tells her that he’s a fan of her work [1:03:40-4:16] , to which she replies that he is a good person for cheering her up [1:05:34-36].

In addition to the repetition of Wiesler being viewed as a good person, the microphones in the apartment picking up unintentional messages for Wiesler, even if they are being said to or by Dreyman and Sieland, is a repeated trope that the film takes advantage of. At the party where Dreyman’s blacklisted friend is ignored, another friend tells Dreyman that he needs to “take a stand” when Dreyman defends another friend who is accused of being with the Stasi [32:38-33:04]. Dreyman may need to choose between his loyalty to his country or to his friends, but Wiesler needs to make a very similar choice and struggles with it for months as the situation escalates due to Dreyman writing an anonymous article about Germany’s suicide rates [1:07:58-9:36] that angers the government and puts them on the hunt for the author.

Another example of this is when Dreyman is planning his article with friends and says the Stasi is idiotic and inept while trying to come up with a cover story for what they are working on if they are asked, right when Weisler is listening in on the conversation [1:15:00-45]. He is not wrong-Weisler technically is an inept agent in this scenario because he is sabotaging the operation, and Dreyman’s comment clearly offends him a little bit since he has done a thorough job of keeping track of everything that has happened, albeit with some revisions of his own, but he deliberately obscures the information anyway for the official report [1:15:55-56:00] just because Dreyman and Sieland’s analysis of him as a good person is accurate and he clearly values their art.

We are also given small hints of foreshadowing that will become relevant later on, such as Sieland taking a shower whenever she is feeling guilty [45:37], Wiesler’s life being incredibly lonely and empty in an episode with a prostitute [48:32-48:51], and Dreyman growing more and more disillusioned with the government as a result of his entire world coming apart thanks to its control over everything, such as when his friend commits suicide or he realizes that his article could get him imprisoned even when it is something that should be discussed.

In another example of repetition in the film, the Stasi come to the apartment looking for evidence that Dreyman wrote the article about the German suicide rates, but are unable to find anything that points to it [1:38:28-1:40:31]. Sieland is blackmailed as a result for her drug abuse problem and association with Dreyman, and is forced to admit the location of the typewriter used to hide the article [1:44:09-48:05], which is hidden under a floorboard. She returns to the apartment, and immediately takes a shower [1:50:54]. She completely envelops herself in the curtain, making a barrier between herself and Dreyman [1:51:46], and Dreyman clearly grows suspicious [1:51:48]. The Stasi arrive and open the floorboard in question [1:52:30-53:50], but not before Sieland runs out into the street under Dreyman’s clearly accusatory glance [1:53:40-45], only for the police to see that the typewriter is gone [1:53:56] and there is nothing under the floorboards. Wiesler came to the apartment and removed it, but it is too late for Sieland, who is so overcome by guilt that she throws herself in front of a truck [1:54:12-18].

Grubitz, knowing full well that Wiesler hid the evidence [1:57:00-05] that would convict Dreyman of treason, sends him to the same facility as the colleague who made a joke earlier in the film in another display of parallelism [1:57:38-58:07]. The job, opening mail, is incredibly tedious, but the fall of the Berlin Wall allows the two of them to leave the job in 1989 [1:58:24-38], with the notably controlled Wiesler getting the others to walk out in a rare display of spontaneity.

From here on out, the film begins to loop in structure during the sequences that follow the fall of the Wall. Dreyman is shown at a play again in 1991 [1:59:26], and we see that it is the same play from the film’s beginning, and the line “crushed by the mighty wheel” [1:59:30] only becomes clearer from the mouth of this new actress. Sieland throwing herself in front of the truck has clearly hurt Dreyman very deeply, and he leaves in the middle due to there being “too many memories.” [1:59:48-2:00:03] The play has had a drastic change in terms of aesthetics, however: instead of being on a factory line, the women are on a far sparser, modern looking stage, and the actress who has taken over the role of the prophetess does not look anything like Sieland [1:59:05]. The play’s glorification of the German working class has vanished, but it is still the same play. This could be possibly reflecting the change in Dreyman’s attitude towards the government upon realizing the Stasi’s involvement that resulted in Sieland’s death, despite him still being the fundamentally same person.

When he leaves, Hempf and Dreyman once again have a conversation outside of the main auditorium (Hempf has not suffered any ill effects from the fall of the Wall) [2:00:05-40], where Dreyman asks why he was never bugged [2:00:51]. Hempf informs him that he was and he should check behind the light switches [2:01:04-21]. What follows is an extended sequence that mimics the sequence where Wiesler bugs the apartment, except instead of adding the wires, they are being pulled out-it is nowhere near as neat due to Dreyman pulling the wires through the walls, but at least his house is finally clean [2:02:09-3:06].

Dreyman then begins to re-experience what Wiesler was listening to when he goes to retrieve the numerous files that cover all his and Sieland’s actions during his monitoring [2:04:05-6:06], where he slowly realizes that Wiesler (although he knows him only as HGW XX/7) was looking out for him. We the viewer have already experienced the bulk of what Dreyman is reading, such as him and Sieland’s sexual encounters or Wiesler covering up the suicide article’s existence in his official files, but what makes this loop not quite perfect is the fact that it is all happening through a different set of eyes. Bordwell argues that most conventional movies have a three act structure: “In the first act…a problem of conflict is established. The second act…develops that conflict to a peak of intensity. The final [act]…constitutes a climax and denouement” (105). The Lives of Others is a German movie that has the typical structure of a Hollywood movie, but the third act contains mostly repeated information from the first and second acts through the eyes of someone else, twisting the film’s structure into something very different than what one would expect from a standard historical drama.

Despite leaving his tedious job steaming and opening mail with the fall of the Berlin Wall, we see that in 1991 and 1993, Wiesler is now a mailman [2:08:58-9:02]-his life is still lonely and his job is still tedious even though he has escaped the Stasi for good now. Even though Dreyman believes that people do change, Hempf’s claim that people do not change looks very much the case when applied to the way Wiesler’s life is going. He ends up seeing a book Dreyman has written about the experience of being bugged in a bookstore window, entitled “Sonata for a Good Man,” while doing his rounds [2:10:40-53] and when he goes inside, it is dedicated to HGW XX/7 [2:11:38]. He purchases it, and when asked by the clerk if he wants it gift-wrapped, responds “No, it’s for me.” [2:12:04] Resolution has arrived for everyone, even if it is not as grand or miraculous as the survivors of the film had no doubt hoped for, not to mention the desires of the audience.

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