The Lives of Others

1984. Germany com­prises the west­ern BRD and the east­ern DDR. Families, rail­ways, ideas — all have been cut in two.

The DDR has been Russified. Its pop­u­la­tion is mon­itored by the Orwellian-sound­ing Ministry for State Security (or Stasi, from the German for ‘state secur­ity’, STAatsSIicherheit). At its Berlin headquar­ters, the Stasi keeps files on all indi­vidu­als and organ­isa­tions sus­pec­ted of anti-DDR activ­ity. The motto of the Stasi is ‘Shield and Sword of the Party’ — and so its officers are both pass­ive in their absorp­tion of inform­a­tion and act­ive in their destruc­tion of lives con­nec­ted (per­haps only by rumour) to sub­ver­sion.

The story of The Lives of Others can be sum­mar­ised in few words. Gerd Wiesler is an under­achiev­ing, isol­ated Stasi officer. He is assigned to mon­it­or the activ­it­ies of a play­wright called Georg Dreyman, who is sus­pec­ted of sub­ver­sion and con­tact with the GDR. Wiesler begins his sur­veil­lance with gusto, and the expert­ise with which his team install their appar­at­us — behind elec­tric sock­ets, in tele­phones — speaks to the fright­en­ing effi­ciency of a police state. These Stasi officers are people too — they love their work.

Ulrich Mühe as Herr Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler

As the sur­veil­lance con­tin­ues, Wiesler becomes infec­ted by the good­ness and pur­ity of Dreyman, the writer. Dreyman is a firm friend to those in his coter­ie dam­aged by the state’s capri­cious atti­tude to art. He is a for­giv­ing and faith­ful hus­band. And, when he sits down to play a son­ata, Wiesler is listen­ing from his bird’s nest in the attic; the music acts as a form of uni­fic­a­tion. Wiesler redis­cov­ers his human­ity.

The film has been titled ‘The Lives of Others’ by its English-lan­guages dis­trib­ut­ors, but ‘Das Leben der Anderen’ lit­er­ally means ‘The Lives of the Others’. This dis­tinc­tion is inter­est­ing because the film is con­cerned more with the clash of groups — i.e. ideo­lo­gies — than intra-group con­flicts. It focuses on the dual­it­ies cre­ated by imposed struc­tures: inform­ers versus those who refuse snitch; cap­it­al­ism versus the DDR’s fla­vour of social­ism; duty to art versus the state; human­ity versus inhu­man­ity.

Martina Gedeck as the act­ress Christa-Maria Sieland and Sebastian Koch as Georg Dreyman.

The film is not without its dif­fi­culties. Wiesler’s con­ver­sion is, frankly, unbe­liev­able in the con­text of his life. Is this the first time he has heard a good piece of music? Why should the writer’s per­form­ance push him to betray his state? How can Wiesler get away with nob­bling an invest­ig­a­tion when he works in organ­isa­tion for which indi­vidu­al­ity is sys­tem­at­ic­ally sub­sumed in lay­ers of checks, bal­ances and betray­als?

Ulrich Tukur as Hauptmann Wiesler’s boss, Oberstleutnant Anton Grubitz

But you can’t go far wrong with a beau­ti­fully-shot char­ac­ter piece whose themes find reflec­tion in many levels of story — the uni­fic­a­tion of oppos­ites, the delib­er­a­tions of betray­al and the betrayed. Plus, the dir­ect­or is an Oxford-edu­cated aris­tro­crat called Count Florian Maria Georg Christian Henckel von Donnersmarck, which is enter­tain­ing in itself.

Author: Ian Hocking

Writer and psychologist.

10 thoughts on “The Lives of Others”

  1. I saw this film recently and found it absorb­ing and mov­ing. (see Petrona, some­where). At risk of a spoil­er and being wrong (because my memory is hope­less), I did not think it was the music alone that caused the con­ver­sion, but the com­bin­a­tion of that with the death of the char­ac­ter — wasn’t that death (and the man­ner of it) the tip­ping point for action?

    Thanks for the lit­er­al trans­la­tion of the title — that makes much more sense, and is much more poet­ic, too. We edit­ors appre­ci­ate the enorm­ous dif­fer­ence one little word can make, even if we don’t always read German!

  2. Eric, excel­lent. You’re won’t be dis­ap­poin­ted!

    Maxine, my memory of the film is fad­ing a bit (I wrote this review early last week) — but didn’t The Death hap­pen quite towards the end of the film? I thought his con­ver­sion had already come by that point. Still, I didn’t think it was a major prob­lem any­way.

  3. I also enjoyed this film, though found it marred by a cer­tain heavy-handed sen­ti­ment­al­ity. The con­trast of oppos­ites — lush vs. bare and sterile flat, tender love­mak­ing vs. pros­ti­tute, for example — was a bit too ste­reo­typed as well. Interesting aside: it was viewed as a class pro­ject by my son, who attends school in the former Stasi realm (Dresden).

    Ian, you’re cor­rect about the trans­la­tion of the title. The life/lives of oth­ers (no ‘the’) would nor­mally read: das Leben anderer/von ander­en.

  4. Thanks for your com­ment, John. Down this way — in Exeter — the options for see­ing good for­eign films are lim­ited, so I try to see them as they turn up.

    Lee, there was a cer­tain heavy-handed­ness to it, def­in­itely. Interesting that your son saw it at school. The ques­tion that every­one seems to ask them­selves is ‘Where are these people now?’

  5. Ian, I’ve just this moment received the pro­gramme for my daughter’s class trip to Berlin from a school near Bonn/Cologne to dis­cov­er that one whole day will be devoted to the NS and Stasi past, includ­ing vis­its to the former Stasi pris­on and to the Stasi museum. I’ll ask my daugh­ter if they dis­cuss the ques­tion of where these people are now.

  6. Wow, I’m very jeal­ous, Lee! I’d be inter­ested to read on your blog what she found out.

  7. OK, maybe I’ll get her to do a guest post. She’s 16 and very polit­ic­ally and his­tor­ic­ally inclined (much more so than her ignor­ant mum). After the first week in June, then.

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