The German movie, The Lives of Others, set in the German Democratic Republic in the 1980′s before the fall of the Wall, is a superb story of the human predicament: part animal, part idealist. Our predicament is narrowed here to a drama on the stage of the political philosophers and their long, continuing debate on the questions: What are the right politics? What is the good society?
The Lives of Others is finally a psychological drama and everyone in the story is, of course, both idealist and animal. The movie asks: What is the prevailing tendency in humanity at large? Assuming we can know that answer, what is the best side to come down on in the debate about the best politics and society between, say, Machiavelli-Hobbes and Locke-Rawls?
The Lives of Others is immediately about the dynamics and outcome of the Cold War authoritarian politics of the German Democratic Republic, foregrounded on all-too-typical despicable Stasi surveillance of an archetypal set of largely extraordinary citizens in whom the tendency is clearly toward idealism; but it’s also clear that Director-Writer Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s view in his debut film is that the predominant human trend, reaching far beyond his archetypes, is toward idealism.
In The Lives of Others it seems accurate to equate idealism with democracy (seen generically) or, if you will, a society and politics about which Freedom House would enthuse: you see emerging a set of indicators of an encouraging-to-very-good degree of societal freedom (e.g., a national press little or not at all beholden to the government).
Given this perspective, The Lives of Others is essentially a Conversion Story. A still-dedicated Stasi officer, Captain Weisler, very bright and expert at both interrogation and surveillance, is, during a full-scale surveillance operation he leads (a bugged apartment, tailing the occupants around the city, etc) against a prominent writer, Georg Dreyman, and his friend and lover, a well-known actress (and as possible their circle of friends), knocked off his authoritarian horse and turned into a traitor to his leaders and their police state. He Gets It. Or better, He Hears It and Sees It. The ideal of freedom comes home to him.
The surveillance he’s assigned to lead arises for apparently two reasons: (1) A prominent East German minister is acting the part of the Alpha dog–just as his ilk from Stalin on down do because for them (out of complex, deadly, frightening psychological disorders) the prevailing human trend is toward the animal side and hence their Right Society/Politics comes from their ironic species-loathing idea that the Alpha-type is an indispensable hero if not a saint of social order amidst feckless humanity, an attitude which actually is the surrender of these authoritarians to the bloody tendencies of our ever-present primal selves. (Look in this carefully built, reservedly realistic movie for several extremely sobering examples of the tradecraft of repression–Police State 101 material–that has been invented and discovered along the awful parade through history of police states, especially as to “sophisticated” interrogation techniques and the matching of personality types to types of imprisonment for the most efficient killing of the prisoners’ spirits.) And (2), this bigwig minister becomes sexually attracted to the actress.
Some have argued that in The Lives of Others the spied-upon writer is so exemplary for Weisler–so much a paragon of what is right in life–that ironically it is Weisler’s spying on him and thereby coming to know him closely–the writer’s real self as opposed to the obedient public persona he adopts in the Police State–that touches Weisler and brings Weisler’s conversion. The analogy to the artist–the writer, the movie director, et al.–and his characters, is nicely presented here.
However, I think The Lives of Others is more complicated in an important, and optimistic, way.
The writer is revealed in the privacy of his apartment to be frustrated and bitter, not heroic, because he writes bad stuff in general, and does so because he is pressured to do so by the Stasi and their leadership: a scene in a theater early in the film in which one of his compromised plays is staged is clearly meant to make this point. His actress friend, the lead in his play, is stuck acting in terrible “socialist realism” dramas simply because that’s the only acting work she can dare do. Dreyman, Weisler discovers from his surveillance, eventually begins to work up the determination to stand up to, and even clandestinely defy, the repression smothering him as well as the actress and their circle of artistic friends; but Dreyman and all the others are very, very human, often weakly so.
Though Weisler’s spying on Dreyman, the actress and the other “bohemians” hastens his conversion, he finally strikes me as coming to resemble the lawyer who will defend various “lowlifes” because our most enlightened principles demand it. He may not choose to socialize much with his clients, but in the spirit of Voltaire: I will defend to the death your right to hold views I dislike.
To give an idea of the meticulous narrative of The Lives of Others: Weisler goes from bugging apartments to a punishing demotion while he is still in the Stasi in which he must perform a boring job of working in a cellar steaming-open letters to citizens; then, after the Wall comes down, Weisler ends up delivering the mail impersonally as an ordinary mail carrier in what is now democratic Germany.