Film Review: The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen)

Posted in conjunction with the course Multicultural Germany in fall semester 2015.
Author: Gradey Wang

The 2006 German drama film The Lives of Others (German: Das Leben der Anderen) directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck follows the lives of playwright Georg Dreyman (played by Sebastian Koch) and his girlfriend Christa-Maria Sieland (played by Martina Gedeck) in East Germany between 1984 and 1991. Between 1984 and 1989, the Ministry for State Security, colloquially termed as the Stasi, spied on its own citizens to find and address any dissidents labelled as “enemies of the state.”

The Lives of Others opens with a flashback of Stasi Captain Gerd Wiesler mercilessly but effectively interrogating the neighbor of a man who escaped to the West. Wiesler later goes to see a play written by Georg Dreyman featuring actress Christa-Maria Sieland and suggests to his superiors that Dreyman is not as upstanding of a citizen as he appears and should therefore be monitored. The Minister of Culture Bruno Hempf (played by Thomas Thieme) supports this surveillance, but Wiesler later discovers that the Hempf’s desire to ruin Dreyman because of his lust for Dreyman’s girlfriend is the underlying reason for the surveillance. Later, Dreyman writes a critical article about suicide in East Germany, inspired by the suicide of a close artist friend, and gets it published in West Germany. However, Wiesler chooses to protect Dreyman by falsely noting that Dreyman is writing a play for the 40th anniversary of the GDR. Then, Hempf seeks to punish Sieland for not reciprocating his sexual advances, has her arrested, and blackmails her into divulging that Dreyman composed the unfavorable article. Investigators are unable to find any corroborating evidence, and Sieland tragically commits suicide. The investigation into Dreyman ends, as does Wiesler’s career. Four years later, the Berlin wall falls, and Dreyman views Stasi files on himself to discover the identity of Wiesler. Later, Wiesler notices a new book published by Dreyman dedicated to him. When the cashier ringing him up asks if he wants the book wrapped, he replies “No, it’s for me.”

The Lives of Others does not show Wiesler and Dreyman in the same frame together, emphasizing the both physical and social divide between them. However, through their almost parallel lives, the two converge on their disillusionment with the corrupt Stasi system, demonstrating the universal unpopularity of the underlying problems inherent in East Germany’s structure. As a socialist state, East Germany functioned on the cooperation of the population in fulfilling socialist ideologies, but enforced this cooperation through surveillance. In light of current debates surrounding global surveillance programs in the name of security, The Lives of Others serves to caution that surveillance without oversight can be abused nefariously for personal agendas, as well.

Throughout the film, lighting is setup such that shadows are seen, parallelling the omnipresent, covert surveillance of society by the Stasi. Regardless of position and relation to the Stasi, everyone in the movie felt observed and consequently acted as though they truly believed the socialist ideology. Through this charade, The Lives of Others elucidates another facet of prescribed and performed identities: While today, debates surrounding performances and staging center around diversity and discrimination, the GDR imposed prescribed identities onto all citizens such that the prescribed and the performed were the same.

Additionally, The Lives of Others manipulates visuals such that even in the scenes portraying post-reunification Germany, colors are dull and bleak, with the one exception being the scene of Wiesler’s play in West Germany, where the part previously played by Sieland was played by a black girl, who, notably, is the only non-white character in the movie. With this introduction of color, The Lives of Others not only demonstrates how West Germany had globalized with an ethnically diverse population, but also suggests that those who endured the governance of socialist East Germany simply continued their somber, inauspicious existences, but art was able to flourish and take on new dimensions of expression. The lag between the development of East and West Germany continues to create conflict over topics like economic and cultural capacity to take in refugees.

The final scene illuminates a fundamental and explicit change of attitude on Wiesler: by purchasing and claiming a book “for [him],” Wiesler establishes his individualism and support for artistic expression. Looking forward to current debates on the relationship between society and individuals, Wiesler’s adjustment to the reunified Germany suggests that debates should also investigate the relationship between government/public policy and society.

– Gradey Wang

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