THE LIVES OF OTHERS, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, 2006

Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s The Lives of Others tells the story of an agent for the East German secret police – the Stasi – Cpt Gerd Wiesler, who is tasked with spying on a playwright, Georg Dreyman, and his actress girlfriend Christa-Maria Sieland. Over the course of the film, Wiesler comes to question his beliefs about the nature of the East German state and his role in upholding it. This expresses itself in Wiesler’s surveillance activities, which move from a detached, cold professionalism – early in the mission Wiesler notes that Dreyman and Sieland ‘unwrap presents, and then presumably have intercourse’ – to an ever-closer involvement in the lives of his subjects.

Much of the power of the film comes from its unremittingly unsentimental look at the brutality and repression of the East German state. The DDR – the Deutsche Demokratische Republik –was founded after the Second World War and, owing to its position on the frontiers of Soviet Europe and as half of a divided country, soon developed a particularly comprehensive surveillance apparatus. By the mid-1980s, in a country of 17 million people, there were over 175,000 Stasi informants – a rate of penetration almost unmatched in modern history. The Stasi were the ‘shield and sword of the Party’ and took that role very seriously. The bugging and surveillance tactics shown in the film seem extreme but were a real risk if you were a DDR citizen deemed to be subversive. Of course, there were other tactics as well – when the 1960s arrived and some East Germans experimented with hippydom, they were rounded up and their hair shaved off. In fact – as an aside, and as something which is alluded to in the film – cultural surveillance was a big part of the Stasi’s role. Not only because artists are notoriously difficult to control and are very often politically dangerous to authoritarian regimes, but because the DDR was very open to Western cultural influences. Virtually the entire country could receive West German radio and TV signals, and there were import shops where one could buy Western music, even if books and the press remained tightly censored. But if one were unwise enough to listen to Western radio or watch Western TV too loudly or openly, and if one showed an unusual interest in Western culture, then you could expect a visit from the Stasi… or at least to attract their attention.

One distinguishing feature about the film is its interesting critique of the Marxist-Leninist system of the DDR. This critique is rooted in the theme of moral goodness, which runs through the plot of the film. Each character represents not only a different way of coping with the repressive political system but a different answer to the question of what it means to be good. Wiesler, for example, begins the film as a true believer; an idealist who really thinks that the people need to be helped along the road to socialism, and that it is the job of the Party and its agents to get them there. Wiesler’s ‘good’ therefore involves the maximisation of future ends, even if it requires one to get dirty hands in the meantime. But these ends are frustrated: the utopia Wiesler hopes to bring about will never be reached by the DDR. In order to understand why this is, we need to adopt a broadly virtue ethical approach. The good person to a virtue ethicist is one who possesses and expresses the right set of virtues – such as kindness, honesty, courage etc – rather than one who acts according to a certain prescribed manner or maxim. In the Aristotelian milieu in which we find the earliest full-fledged account of virtue ethics, the development of virtue is a necessary condition for the attainment of eudaimonia, or human flourishing. A society in which the development of virtue is made difficult or impossible, therefore, is one in which it is impossible to achieve eudaimonia.

The film therefore charges the DDR with frustrating human potential by punishing virtue and rewarding vice. This is most clear in the film’s treatment of honesty and integrity. The higher-ups in the system are portrayed as uniquely dishonest hypocrites. Wiesler’s superior, Anton Grubitz, is a flat-out careerist, interested only in his own personal advancement within the system; the Minister Hempf, for whom the investigation into Dreyman is taking place, is a decadent bureaucrat who pursues Dreyman in order to get a love rival out of the way. Grubitz sees nothing wrong with this corruption, reminding Wiesler on many occasions to ‘think of their careers!’ Success in the DDR seems to require this sort of careerism, hypocrisy or cynicism: Wiesler really means it when he tells a prisoner that the ‘humanistic system’ of East Germany is incapable of arresting people arbitrarily, and that’s why he’s only a captain; Hempf, on the other hand, quotes Stalin mischievously and is under no illusions about what the system is capable of and he is the Minister for Culture.

So much for honesty and integrity, then. This is confirmed towards the start of the film. Dreyman complains to Hempf about his friend’s blacklisting. Hempf’s response is a masterpiece in Eastern Bloc doublethink – paraphrasing, it is ‘blacklisting? We don’t do that here. You should choose your words more carefully.’ The reality of the situation is covered up by a creative use of language and a not-exactly-veiled threat. No wonder that in such a situation it is the liars and hypocrites who rise to the top. But the film does not only criticise the DDR because it had bad leadership. Its effects on public morality are also questioned.

This is epitomised by the case of Georg Dreyman, the writer who is spied upon throughout the film. Dreyman is an intelligent and well-meaning man with liberal sympathies, although he is also (like Wiesler) a believer in the Communist ideal. Unlike most of his fellow writers, however, Dreyman remains loyal to the regime: though he takes Western newspapers and lives a broadly middle-class lifestyle, his work is politically acceptable and he keeps a low profile in his personal life. Dreyman, in short, has traded the courage of his convictions for the comfort of remaining unconvicted. But this personal dishonesty comes at a price: Dreyman is torn between his desire for an easy life and the urge to tell the truth about the regime. In the end, Dreyman chooses honesty, after a series of events which shatter any residual faith in the system and confirm to him its brutality.  But this is an agonising decision for anyone to take, and others are not so courageous. Dreyman’s girlfriend, Christa-Maria, shows this other side of the coin. Chased after by libidinous Minister Hempf, she surrenders to his advances in order to retain her career as an actress and, disgusted by this prostitution of herself, she becomes addicted to prescription painkillers which she obtains illegally but with the tacit blessing of Hempf. Christa-Maria reasons that, if this is the price to pay, then she has to pay it: when Dreyman confronts her about the affair, her response is simply to say that, well, Dreyman’s in bed with the regime as well, and there’s no real difference between his intellectual prostitution and her actual prostitution. And there is something to this claim – both of them, after all, end up fucked and feeling dirty.

So this is a society in which virtues like honesty, personal integrity, and courage are valued less than keeping your head down and doing what you’re told. Even Wiesler, the idealist, recognises this from the get-go, telling a prisoner that he may as well comply: ‘senseless heroics’ will only land him in prison and the Stasi will get what they need anyway. And Dreyman and Christa-Maria show us that such a society does not lead to human flourishing. In fact, the East German state is a kind of anti-eudaimonia. When one attempts to be good, you’re punished.

I haven’t touched yet on the main development in the plot, which is Wiesler’s attempt to redeem himself. His experience spying on the rich lives of Dreyman and Christa-Maria, and his learning that his mission came about not from genuine national security concerns but for the sexual advancement of a powerful man, humanise him and make him realise that the regime does not fulfil the ideals he thought it did. Wiesler comes to realise that true human flourishing – the sort which he hopes Marxism-Leninism is leading towards – cannot be achieved in the repressive society which he has attempted to uphold. It requires love, care, and above all openness and honesty, all of which can be brought about by free artistic expression. This expresses itself – because Wiesler is no natural dissident – in his increasing attempts to protect those he is meant to be intruding upon. But this requires him to step outside and beyond the system. Virtue and repression are incompatible. And this is the main message of the film. If you like, it is the liberal critique of tyranny: you cannot flourish when you are downtrodden. A state which is itself paranoid and hypocritical produces paranoid and hypocritical citizens. And this is wrong.

Jack Price




It’s not the case as the naïve might think that democracy is inconsistent with indoctrination. In a state in which you can control the population by force – a feudal state, a military run state, or what we nowadays call a totalitarian state – it really doesn’t matter very much what people believe or what they think because you’ve got a bludgeon over their head and you can control what they do. They obey. But when the state loses the bludgeon and when you lose the capacity (in a democracy) to coerce people by force and when the voice of the people can be heard, you’ve got to make sure it says the right thing. Therefore, you need techniques of manufacture of consent, and propaganda, and thought-control, and indoctrination. (Manufacturing Consent, Noam Chomsky)

Peter Wintonick and Mark Archbar’s Manufacturing Consent is a 1992 documentary film about the life and thought of Noam Chomsky, and specifically his thoughts on the political economy of the media. The film avoids conventional documentary features – voiceover narration, chronological exposition – favouring instead a dialectical approach both in terms of form and content. This means that Chomsky is presented largely in debate and interviews, and the juxtaposition of those against whom he is pitted is judicious, telling, and often entertaining. In an interview with William Buckley Jnr, for example, he admits that he is wont to lose his temper on such occasions. The sleek Buckley imperiously warns him not to adding, “If you did, I’d smash you in the Goddamn face” – Ivy League arrogance mobilised to put the upstart Jewish subversive in his place.

Philosophically, Chomsky’s thesis about the encroachment of media propaganda into every avenue of political, social, and cultural life with their creation of what he calls “necessary illusions” that maintain the dominance of particular elite groups, carries echoes from Adorno and Horkheimer’s account in The Dialectic of Enlightenment concerning the mass media empires of the culture industry and their tendencies toward rationalization, standardization, and conformity which they interpreted as a consequence of the triumph of the instrumental rationality that was coming to pervade and structure ever more aspects of life. Thus, they argued, while culture once cultivated individuality, it was now promoting submission, and was a crucial part of “the totally administered society” that was producing “the end of the individual.” For Chomsky, as he meticulously details through a fusillade of facts, media corporations are concerned less with producing “the end of the individual” than they are with producing the end of any feeling of solidarity or community or organized resistance against the agenda that they set.

One could argue that the genealogy of Chomsky’s notions can be traced further back to Marx’s analyses about the relations of production. Society for Marx is the sum total of social relations connecting its members. Market forces appear to regulate everything, but what is really behind those market forces has become obscured because the social relationship between people or their relation with nature is expressed as a commercial relationship between things (money, commodities, and capital). Commerce not only introduces a proliferation of relationships between tradeable ‘things,’ but commercial relations also begin to govern and regulate the pattern and techniques of human contact. Media corporations, as they increasingly narrow into global conglomerates, distil these patterns and techniques to such an extent that human contact appears locked into a capitalist doctrine. Media exchange, much like commodity exchange, objectifies social relations to the point where they escape from conscious human control, and exist such that they can be recognized only by abstract thought. Again, the clear result is that any notion of solidarity or community suffers.

Chomsky’s ideas also have parallels with Foucault’s notion of knowledge/power discourses and the manner in which social structures and the dominant tendencies within them come to formulate the prevailing ideological standards of any given period. In effect, what one deems to be truth or valid knowledge is based upon the discourse of that time; epistemology is reduced to power relations. Thus, discourses within the established media will always lead the way to instantiating a particular worldview, a particular knowledge geared towards their particular (elite) interests; towards ‘manufacturing consent’ about the validity of their truth claims. Indeed, Manufacturing Consent contains a brief scene in which Chomsky participates in a debate with Foucault entitled “Justice versus Power,” which highlights not just the parallels between them but also their differences.

It is interesting that when faced with the kind of precise, surgical evidence that Chomsky provides against the media organisations that he critiques, spokespersons for the latter often fall back on weak institutional arguments, or the well-worn tactic of dismissing any dissenting voice as merely a lunatic ‘conspiracy theorist.’ This tactic is particularly favoured by the New York Times journalists in their response to Chomsky’s overwhelming data about their and the rest of the mainstream American media’s silence over the genocidal invasion of East Timor by Indonesia (aided and abetted by the U.S government), as opposed to the clamorous outcry and the many column inches afforded to the Khmer Rouge atrocities in Cambodia.

If Part One of Manufacturing Consent illustrates selected Chomskyan ideas on American media, Part Two looks for alternative media networks and finds a host of print media, local radio, and TV stations in the States that are resisting the New York Times, Washington Post, CNN media hegemony. It also features a telling sequence filmed at George Bush Senior’s Presidential inauguration ceremony. To the accompaniment of Bush’s metallic drone in his Presidential address the camera threads through the crowds and away across the rooftops until it rests on the backstreet clusters of satellite media vans, as if to show whether the real power lies.

Bash Khan