Film Review: The Humanization in The Lives of Others

The German movie “The Lives of Others” is released in February 2007. It was directed and written by Florian von Donnersmarck, and produced by Quirin Berg and Max Wiedemann. The main characters were played by Sebastian Koch, Martina Gedeck, and Ulrich Mühe. The movie is awarded in numerous prize ceremonies, ranging from European Film Awards to Cesar Award for Best Foreign Film. Other than its artistic achievements, the movie has significant historic meaning – The first popular feature film to deal with the State Security past in East Germany. This essay argues “The Lives of Others” approached the national past by emphasizing the humanity in the German Democratic Republic’s (GDR) suppression.

To frame the intensity of the East German’s surveillance, the plot dived into one specific and individual surveillance case. The case contextualized its background in 1983 East Berlin, where at that time the regime had nationwide oppressive surveillance on dissidents and citizens. Those surveillance were conducted by the Ministry of National Security, commonly known as the Stasi. One of the Stasi officers, Gerd Wiesler (played by Ulrich Mühe), doubting that a famous playwright (played by Sebastian Koch) was loyal to the Communist Party, had received approval to spy on the man and his actress-lover Christa-Maria (played by Martina Gedeck). Wiesler became unexpectedly sympathetic to the couple, then faced conflicting loyalties when his superior took a liking to Christa-Maria and ordered Wiesler to remove the playwright. Finally, Wiesler risked his career in the agency to hide Dreyman’s typewriter, and the two of them met after Germany’s democratization.  

Overall, the film supported the idea of reconciliation by narrating the secret connection between perpetrators and victims. Instead of portraying intelligence agents as iron-blooded, the film narrated how Wiesler changed bit by bit during his continuous surveillance of his playwright target. The first scene of the movie had shown Wiesler as a loyal and devoted officer, who was willing to get information from his target with all means. However, after his numerous engagements with Dreyman, he became more and more sympathetic to how the regime oppressed Dreyman.

The most significant turning point was the moment when Dreyman played the song “Sonate vom Guten Menschen”. Instead of playing for himself, Dreyman played the song for his close friend, Jerska, who had hanged himself after he was banned from the stage director position. In essence, Dreyman played the song for his own emotional expression, but out of his expectation, Wiesler had been deeply moved by his complex chords of music. Such emotional change had led to the change of Weisler’s role, in other words switching from Dreyman’s  “hidden threat” to his “secret angel”. When Christia was caught for interrogation about Dreyman’s writings, Wiesler used his authority to get the information and hid the typewriter, hence the GDR’s agency had no evidence to arrest Dreyman. This shows Wiesler took up the role of director to direct what encounters Dreyman would face, and his setups eventually saved the playwright’s life. Those scenes above have also described the relationship between Dreyman and Wiesler was interactive in nature. Even if Dreyman did not know he has Wiesler as his “hidden audience”, his behaviors had a causation relationship with the film’s ending.

However, the idea of a humanize national past is built on the basis of artistic and scholarly elites, rather than the experiences of ordinary citizens. Numerous film critics claimed that “The Lives of Others” was just a fantasy imagined by the director, because it was not reflected in what had really happened during authoritative East Germany. This further led to criticism on authenticity, in other words not accurately reflecting the past. From my point of view, the movie laid the background that such reconciliation was only mediated through the medium of literature. In particular, Wiesler switched his sides because of the power of music, while in the end when Dreyman realized there was someone who had protected him secretly, he dedicated Wiesler anonymously in the form of writing a book, rather than other forms. What is more, Wiesler found out about Dreyman’s dedication in a random bookshop, which was also a cultural space. The reason why the director emphasized a lot on literature as a substitute public sphere in Germany, which cultural enthusiasts had enjoyed a unique social status to set themselves apart from the average German citizens. Such phenomenon has pictured how the film employs a classical model of humanization through art. For example, East German scholars were allowed to travel to the West for book tours and vacations. With this prerequisite, this makes sense why Dreyman would have the invitation from West German journalists to write articles. Also, such cultural background of East Germany rationalized Wiesler’s betrayal. In short, the director portrayed a parallel world in East Germany to justify for the ideal humanization of Stasi officers.

In short, “The Lives of Others” ’s main approach was to humanize the history of GDR’s suppression. As the director Von Donnersmarck told his cinematographer, the team must together “create a world when you feel only warmth comes from the people themselves”. The humanity did not come from a sudden, as the director made use of the cultural background to justify the humanized shift from suppressor, then built the secret connection between Dreyman and Wiesler through cultural transmissions, like bookshops, classical music, and newspaper articles. Although the relationship between the two of them was not real to most East German citizens, the film revisited the German’s collective memory from an inspiring perspective.

Thomas Yue
Thomas Yue
Thomas Yue is currently pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in University of Toronto. His major are Contemporary Asian Studies and History. His research interests include development and modernization of east Asian cities, Canadian politics, and Asian social movements.