In East Berlin 1984, Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe) believes in what he does. A Stasi captain and surveillance expert, he implacably pursues his directive, “to know everything.” He doesn’t question what that knowledge might mean, or how it might be shaped by necessity or fear. He has faith in the end itself, as if it has no context or consequences.
At the start of Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others), Wiesler demonstrates his dedication while teaching a class in interrogation. “Why keep him awake for so long?” asks a student as they listen to an audiotape of an obviously pained subject. “It’s inhuman.” But for Wiesler, such concern is irrelevant. He takes pride in his inflexibility and focus. “The liar has prepared sentences,” he instructs. And the Stasi — the East German Ministry for State Security — has means to intimidate, threaten, and frighten him.
Wiesler’s faith is put to a test when Minister Hempf (Thomas Thieme) gives him a new assignment, to observe a famous playwright, Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch). Introduced following a performance of one of his plays — stern and abstract — Georg endures a toast to his work, as a state official announces, “Writers are engineers of the soul.” The proclamation indicates how badly the state gets wrong its mission and its objects of surveillance, bothered by directions and frames rather than comprehending said “soul”‘s complexities and multiplicities. Used to performing for East German bigwigs, Georg smiles and nods, as Wiesler, equally adept at “engineering” and pleasing his superiors, watches and recognizes the act.
Within days, Wiesler and his team set up an elaborate system of surveillance, with microphones carefully hidden throughout the artist’s apartment. For weeks after, Wiesler sits with headphones encasing his face and a journal in front of him, dutifully writing down Georg’s every move, as well as those of his actress girlfriend, Christa-Maria (Martina Gedeck). While they’re aware that they’re likely to be observed, they maintain an impressive immediacy and warmth; their interactions are passionate and apparently earnest (Wiesler listens in on one bedroom encounter, primly noting in his journal that they “presumably had intercourse”).
Ulrich Muhe as Captain Gerd Wiesler
Wiesler’s self-protective isolation is underlined by his bleak environment (realized in washed out colors by cinematographer Hagen Bogdanski). He’s disappointed to learn Georg and Christa-Marie’s relationship is not quite so idyllic as he might wish — for he does, despite and because of his faith, become invested in their story, narrating and absorbing it simultaneously. Georg is, in fact, sympathetic with an overtly dissident director, Jerska (Volkmar Kleinert). And Christa-Marie is, for her own reasons (among them, addiction to prescription pills), servicing the odious Hempf in the backseats of cars and darkly shadowed hotel rooms. Though Wiesler resents their different sorts of betrayal on principle, he also comes to understand them, in tentative yet disturbingly emotional terms.
At least this is how Wiesler sees it. As its title suggests, The Lives of Others takes his point of view, monitoring and so possessing those lives, presuming (again) his own rightness as interpreter and judge. Though his assessments begin to diverge from those of his superiors, he knows how to cover his own tracks, to write his reports so that crucial information might be omitted, or phrased in a way that escapes notice. When the officer ion charge of the operation, Col. Grubitz (Ulrich Tukur), questions his methods or doubts his intentions, Wiesler knows how to play him as well. Suddenly and strangely, Wiesler sits at the center of a swirl of deception. Seeing in the artists a new sort of faith, a commitment to passion and compassion, Wiesler doesn’t so much doubt his previous conviction as he rationalizes his new belief.
Left: Sebastian Koch as Georg Dreyman, Right: Martina Gedeck as Christa-Sieland
On one level, the shift is rather too literal: art transforms him. He listens to Georg play the piano (“Sonata for a Good Man,” written by his despairing friend Jerska), appreciates the beauty of his work (written for others to read or see on stage, a very public sort of self-expression), and realizes the urgency of the artist’s quest for freedom from the state. On another level, the shift is symbolic but Wiesler finds a more remarkable relationship with Christa-Marie. Her own efforts to get around the system and more immediately, to survive, are crass and obvious. While Georg inspires others with his work, she falls into a kind of abjection, her body for sale and her dependence driving her choices. And yet, she becomes a compelling figure for Wiesler, who finds in her a particular sort of “correlative” for his own dilemma.
The movie reveals repeatedly Wiesler’s vulnerabilities, ostensibly in opposition to his severe appearance, but adhering to generic conventions (consider, for instance, the film most often mentioned in comparison to this one, The Conversation). But Lives also charts Wiesler’s self-realization in a way that is particularly gendered. Though he identifies with Georg (seeing in him a similar intelligence and self-regard, while maintaining a belief that he “knows” more than Georg), he is mystified and quite enchanted by Christa-Marie.
Left: Ulrich Muhe as Captain Gerd Wiesler, Right: Martina Gedeck as Christa-Sieland
Hoping to “help” her (that is, restore the romance he is now living vicariously) as well as know her, Wiesler approaches the actress in a café. Pretending to be a fan of her stage work rather than an expert on her intimate life, he worships appropriately, that is, playing a part she expects. In turn, she gently educates this naïve “believer,” offering the most basic observation, “Actors are never who we are.” Gazing at her across the table, wanting to set right her priorities, he insists, “I’m your audience” (and yes, you may shudder at the implications), encouraging her to remember him as such.
Even as the scene underlines his relationship to her, it also recalls his relationship to his own audience, that he has come to see his work as performance — for state officials demanding answers and coherence. He imagines himself into her life, so corporeal, so exposed, and so unlike his own frankly masculine stiffness. More generally and even profoundly, he grasps the ways that audiences create meaning (and might be manipulated to do so in particular ways). And so he is also an audience member, translating, assessing, and shaping the lives of others so that they accommodate his own expectations, even as such expectations are, he realizes, shaped by other “others.”