The Lives of Others

By Tim Winterstein

From 1949 until 1990, East Germany (or the German Democratic Republic—DDR auf Deutsch) was perhaps the most technologically advanced, the most severe, the highest functioning surveillance state the world had yet seen—and maybe hasn’t seen since. (When North Korea finally, hopefully, ceases to be what it is, it will be interesting to compare citizens’ accounts with accounts from East Germany.) Whereas other nations had tried to exercise oversight over every aspect of their citizens’ lives, the GDR was largely successful at that dubious task—and because of their efficient record-keeping, we have better insight than into other nations where such records might have been destroyed.

The differences between the GDR and other surveillance states are what makes that time period intriguing, as well as fertile dramatic ground. No doubt Hitler and Stalin aspired to such total control, but their nations were too large and the technology lacking. They had to depend on informers and denouncers of various stripes, who often found that the best way to avoid suspicion was to cast suspicion on someone else, whatever the motive might be. Especially Stalin’s paranoia got the best of him. East Germany seems to stand apart. Its security service, the Stasi (a shortening of the German Staatssicherheit or Staatssicherheitsdienst) seemed to run not on paranoia so much as a definite and certain efficiency. 90,000 employees kept things running as tightly and smoothly as the proverbial German trains.

As it is depicted in The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen; 2006, streaming on Netflix), nothing gets through the net of state observation or control. They desire to know everything and they largely succeed. Everyone is surveilled, especially those who seem to pose an intellectual or artistic threat to the sovereignty of the state. Though I’m no expert by far, it seems that the GDR was the closest to carrying out Mussolini’s atheistic (or idolatrous) and socialistic dictum, “Everything within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.”

The Lives of Others dramatizes that in the context of one particular Stasi officer’s work surveilling a particular playwright and his girlfriend, a famous actress. When the officer, Wiesler, first encounters the playwright, Dreyman, it is at the performance of one of his plays. Wiesler tells his friend and supervisor, Grubitz, that they should keep an eye on Dreyman, Grubitz is surprised, saying that Dreyman has always been a good supporter of the state. But Grubitz is a far better politician, and instead of sharing his own opinion, he tells the Minister of Culture, Hempf, that maybe they should watch Dreyman.

Hempf uses his position to force Dreyman’s girlfriend, Christa-Maria Sieland, to acquiesce to his desires. Because of his lust, he instructs Grubitz to find information on Dreyman in order to remove him from the picture. But we get the impression that the reason for watching a person formerly in the good graces of the state could actually be anything: envy, hatred, some previous slight. It doesn’t matter, and the state doesn’t need to give its reasons. And, anyway, if you’ve got nothing to hide, why would you be worried?

The enigma in the film is Wiesler. Why does he interfere in the surveillance? At the beginning, he is the ruthless interrogator, willing to use any means necessary to get what he wants. When a student in his class asks why he kept a prisoner so long from sleep—“it seems inhuman”—Wiesler marks a disapproving x by the student’s name.

So where and why does the change happen? Is it because he dislikes Hempf? Is it disillusionment with the goals of the Stasi? Is it a previously suppressed tinge of conscience? Is it his own desire for Christa-Maria? Does he have high culture aspirations himself, so he’s living vicariously through Dreyman’s success? Or does he just happen to feel sorry for this particular couple? I think all of those, and maybe more, are plausible explanations. But we’re not given any concrete answers.

What we are given is a series of escalating tragedies produced by the all-enclosing net of the state, leading to the climax of the film. Later, as Dreyman discovers the extent of the surveillance on him because of a conversation with Hempf, he finally begins to write again, and gives his book a surprising dedication.

The film has been criticized for having a sympathetic Stasi character, by no less than Hubertus Knabel, the director of the Stasi memorial at Hohenschönhausen prison, who refused the film’s writer/director, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, when he wanted to film there. In response to von Donnersmarck’s claim that he was creating an Oskar Schindler-type character, Knabel told him that there was a Schindler; there was not a Wiesler. (See the article by Anna Funder, the author of Stasiland, here.)

It makes sense. Even if you want to make a Stasi officer somewhat sympathetic, you don’t have to make him essentially the hero of the story. Further, it seems as if such a character is not only unknown and unlikely, but impossible, given what we know of Stasi surveillance. And yet, it raises the question of the purpose of this particular film. Without revealing Wiesler’s specific motives, The Lives of Others allows us to put ourselves in his position: we think we might have reservations about the nature of our work, if we were Wiesler.

And yet—again—perhaps that is the primary problem. We have trouble believing that we would be drawn into such an occupation. And while film is an imaginative media, and so seems to justify creating a character that did not and maybe could not exist, the nature of that character might keep us from recognizing the fundamentally realistic pull of totalitarianism. Would we, in fact, not do what thousands of people throughout history have done? Wouldn’t we do what we could to survive? I think we ought to hesitate to answer the question until we are in the situation.

One other aspect that struck me, watching The Lives of Others again this time, was how little changes at various times in history. I just finished reading a book called Fatal Discord, which is a sort of dual biography of Erasmus and Luther and the effects of their ideas on subsequent generations. At the time that both Erasmus and Luther were living and writing, there was also an atmosphere of dread around what one might say or write.

Luther’s ideas, words, and writings were, of course, considered a threat to the Roman Catholic hegemony. But even Erasmus, who remained a son of the Roman Church, was threatened continually for what he said and wrote. There seem to have been moments where a single word could bring denunciations and threats of excommunication and death. People then, too, had to send manuscripts to friendly printers outside of their native territories. And the Church of the time could ruin you, if they chose, just as definitively as any state security apparatus.

Today, as well, though we outwardly treasure the idea of freedom of speech, if your words or actions become well-enough known, and they are against the prevailing winds of opinion, it might not be long before you find yourself denounced, doxxed, and made a public pariah (at least on social media). Certainly, we seem to have moved beyond organized, governmental surveillance. But there are other kinds of dictatorships and other kinds of totalitarianisms. The Lives of Others may be an impossible story historically, but we can see—especially in the three main characters—that there are other, less overt ministries of fear at work around and even inside us.