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.