Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The Lives of Others

I'm obviously rather late to this party, and probably everything that could have been said about this stunning, intense, impeccably well-made film has already been said. Nevertheless, here goes: I'm obviously supposed to read The Lives of Others as a story about the redemptive power of art. While surveilling a bohemian couple, the playwright Georg and the actress Christa-Maria, gray, blank Stasi agent Wiesler becomes exposed to art, poetry, and music, and through that exposure is moved to protect the lovers, and conceal evidence of Georg's seditious activities. There's even a scene in which Georg quotes Lenin being moved by Beethoven's Apassionata, and asks whether a man who truly listened and understood a piece of music that beautiful could really be evil--while all the time Wiesler is listening and being moved by the music Georg is playing. According to IMDb and Wikipedia, this scene was the crux and genesis of the film, the first image that came to writer/director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck when he conceived of it. But to my mind The Lives of Others is more persuasive not as a story about redemption through art, but as one about the seductive lure of storytelling.

Though he is intrigued by Georg and Christa-Maria's wider horizons, Wiesler initially views them with cool detachment, and even with something bordering on cruelty. When he discovers that Christa-Maria is being pursued by a prominent party member (who also ordered the surveillance on Georg, probably in an attempt to get rid of his competition), Wiesler arranges for Georg to witness evidence of the 'affair' (in reality, more along the lines of sexual assault, as Christa-Maria justly fears for her career and safety if she doesn't acquiesce). It's not clear to me why he does this, but my best guess is that he wants to shatter Georg's comfortable existence, his ability to live a decent life even under the most indecent of regimes.

If Wiesler expected Georg to shatter, to confront Christa-Maria with accusations and rage, he is disappointed. Instead, when she sets out to meet the party member again a week later, Georg sincerely begs her not to go, no matter the risk to either one of them. We cut away from their heartfelt, if somewhat melodramatic, argument to see Wiesler listening in rapt attention, and then rudely torn away by the arrival of his replacement. His bereft expression when denied the resolution to Georg and Christa-Maria's drama should be familiar to anyone who has ever immersed themselves in a book or a television episode, and been torn away before the crucial scene ends. It's not Brecht or Beethoven that have won Wiesler over to the young couple's side--it's their own, not particularly exciting or unusual, story.

Almost as soon as he becomes a voracious reader, Wiesler injects himself into the story as a writer. As many fans do when a beloved story takes what they believe to be the wrong turn, he starts writing fanfic--in this case, real person fic, overwriting the real story. When Christa-Maria, in spite of Georg's entreaties, leaves the apartment to meet the party member, Wiesler approaches her at a bar and persuades her to go home. It's a trite device--the stranger who just happens to possess the wisdom the hero or heroine need to hear, and the opportunity and presence of mind to deliver it--but then Wiesler is just a beginner at the writing game, and like so many fledgling writers he is drawn to cliches. From this point onwards, Wiesler is the author of Georg and Christa-Maria's life story twice over--in the fiction he pours into the reports he submits to his superiors, in which Georg's plans to write a story for the West German magazine Der Spiegel about the prevalence of suicide in East Germany are transformed into a play commemorating the nation's 40th anniversary, and in the reality he creates by directing their lives towards his notion of a happy ending.

It's hard for me to view Wiesler's actions on Georg and Christa-Maria's behalf as an unadulterated good. I'm a firm believer in the power of fiction to overcome prejudice, apathy, and ignorance, but by the same token I'm wary of fictionalizing real people. The lives of others may be nothing but a story to us, but they are real, and there is never a sense that Wiesler helps Georg and Christa-Maria because he feels compassion for them as real people. Rather, his compassion is the kind we feel towards our favorite characters--mingled and often overpowered by our desire to read their story. It also can't be said that Wiesler's interference has a wholly positive effect. When Georg and his friends suspect that his apartment has been bugged, they plant a trap by loudly discussing a fictitious plot to smuggle a troublesome dissident into West Germany by hiding him under the back seat of a car (it's amusing to note that the artists' attempts at writing espionage fiction are just as ham-fisted and obvious as Wiesler's at writing naturalistic character drama). A by-then sympathetic Wiesler forbears from reporting the escape attempt, which persuades Georg that his apartment is safe, and forces Wiesler to concoct ever more elaborate fabrications in order to conceal his plot.

By the end of the film, Wiesler has lost sight of the fact that his characters are real people. He thinks of them merely as tokens, who can be moved only by the actions of others, and most particularly himself, and without free will or internal thoughts which he can't spy upon. Which is why, when Georg's article is published and he falls under suspicion, Wiesler strong-arms Christa-Maria (who has already been pressured into telling his superiors that Georg wrote the article) into revealing the location of Georg's typewriter, which can then be matched to the original document and used as proof of his seditious activities. By the time Georg's apartment is searched, Wiesler has removed the typewriter, but he hasn't taken into account that for Christa-Maria, already steeped in self-loathing for denouncing Georg, the knowledge that she has damned Georg to torment and possibly death will be too much to bear. She kills herself before Wiesler's deception can be discovered and Georg cleared of suspicion.

(Christa-Maria's weakness is just about the only sour note in what is otherwise a wholly satisfying film. I realize that one of the film's aims is to explore the ways in which people respond to life under a totalitarian regime, and the compromises they make with it, and with their conscience, to survive. In addition, the film shines a light on the fact that such regimes are abhorrent not only because they prey on their citizenry but because they force those citizens to prey on one another. Nevertheless, it smarts that the only character seen informing to the Stasi is the only prominent female character, who is also subjected or subjects herself to an entire host of humiliations--she is raped, she has a drug habit, we are told that she lacks confidence in her talent, when she's picked up by the Stasi she offers to inform on her friends or provide her interrogator with sexual favors in order to save her career, and finally she betrays the man she loves not once but twice--before she's finally allowed to kill herself in order to expiate her crimes. Even more so when one considers that the only other woman in the film is also a collaborator. When Wiesler installs the listening devices in Georg's apartment he is observed by Georg's neighbor Frau Meineke. Realizing this, he knocks on her door and curtly informs her that, should she breathe a word to Georg, he will have her daughter expelled from medical school. She, of course, submits.)

The film's last segment takes place in the early nineties, after Germany's unification. Georg, discovering that he was under surveillance and understandably puzzled as to why his complicity in the Der Spiegel affair was never brought to light, requests his files from the Stasi archives, and becomes aware of Wiesler's actions. The two men's roles are reversed--Georg is now the reader of Wiesler's life story, which is revealed between the lines of his own. He goes to see Wiesler (whose name and address are supplied to him by the government, which requires a certain amount of suspension of disbelief) but doesn't approach him. He is unwilling to become an active participant in Wiesler's life, much like Wiesler himself, who only comes close to revealing his interference when he starts to tell the dying Christa-Maria that he has moved the typewriter, but can't quite say the words. Instead, Georg writes a novel, titled Sonata for a Good Man, dedicated to Wiesler's Stasi codename and telling, presumably, the film's story. The film ends with Wiesler buying a copy and proudly declaring "This is for me." There is, clearly, a great deal of triumph to be found in this ending. Fiction has not only been the instrument of Georg and Wiesler's salvation, but it has also allowed them to reach out to one another and express their mutual appreciation. Nevertheless, there is also something a little sad about a man whose greatest achievement is to have been reduced to a character in another person's life story.

10 comments:

נורית said...

מאחד מעשרות המאמרים שקראתי על הסרט הזה ובכלל על מזרח גרמניה (בעברית כמובן ואין לי שום יכולת כרגע לציין איזה מהם זה היה) קיבלתי את הרושם שאכן ניתנה לפותחי התיקים האופציה ללמוד מי בלש אחריהם.
זה היה מאוחר בלילה והופיע רק במאמר אחד, כאמור, מתוך עשרות שקראתי, מה שהופך אותו כנראה למקור לא מאוד אמין.

mark c said...

I think your reading is much more satisfying than the rather hokey "redemptive power of art" one.

Of course, there is a third female character - the prostitute with whom Wiesler has spectacularly joyless sex. Weisler appears to be envious of Georg/Christa-Maria's intimacy and sex life. He also idealises Georg (reading the books he reads etc), almost to the extent of having a platonic crush on him, and possibly thinks C-M isn't good enough for him.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I'd say Wiesler is equally infatuated with both Georg and Christa-Maria, and mostly with the idea of them together. I'm not sure sex enters into it - when he hires the prostitute (for the first time, we are told), he's more interested in post-coital cuddling than in the sex itself.

As for the theme of redemption through art being hokey, in general I do believe that art can be redemptive. In fact, I believe that any form of self-expression - art, craft, science, cookery, whatever - is something that can keep you sane and human even in the worst of situations. The notion that learning to appreciate art can also teach you to think morally is less obvious to me, but it's certainly compelling.

That said, I just finished reading a fascinating meditation on the film from The Guardian, which argues that its feel-good message also serves to tone down the excesses of the GDR regime, and plays into the hands of former Stasi operatives trying to downplay the viciousness with which they persecuted their own people.

mark c said...

Yes, quite. The film makes a big deal of his loneliness and isolation and their intimacy.

Sorry, I meant the idea of Redemption through art was hokey in the context of the film - this guy who must have spied on countless people, suddenly changing his life because one of them happens to play some classical music.

Have you read Anna Funder's Stasiland? She lived in East Germany and ended up interviewing lots of people whose lives were affected by the Stasi (as well as soem former Stasi men). Some of the stories are mind bogglingly petty and vicious.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

this guy who must have spied on countless people, suddenly changing his life because one of them happens to play some classical music

Yes, that struck me as problematic too. It's not quite accurate to say that the film downplays the horrors Wiesler committed before encountering Georg and Christa-Maria - it does, after all, open with him cruelly and relentlessly interrogating a man - but it doesn't answer the question of why these people should have persuaded him to change.

I haven't read Stasiland, but between the film and Funder's essay, I think I'll keep an eye out for it.

Katherine said...

There are two phrases from your post that sum up my reaction to the film: "heartfelt, if somewhat melodramatic", and "not particularly exciting or unusual". It is undoubtedly well-made, but I was underwhelmed -- there's nothing new here, and what's old is not presented in a new way.

There are some very effective scenes, but on the whole I thought the film was ploddingly obvious when it wasn't being overtly sentimental -- Wiesler weeping as Georg plays the piano? Pull the other one, it's got bells on! The fact that this scene was at the heart of the film's conception speaks volumes to me. I do believe in the redemptive power of art, but I believe that power is more complicated than this scene implies -- it's not like some Evangelical tent-revival where you can Accept Art As Your Personal Saviour and be instantly cleansed of all demons. There's something dishonest about the scene, and that dishonesty pervades the entire film.

And Christa-Maria was a classic Woman In Refrigerator -- a female character whose sole purpose is to die to make the male character's story more poignant.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I think Christa-Maria's role is more complicated than that. She does exist as an entity in her own right, and her tragedy is as complicated and painful as Georg's and Wiesler's. Her death, I also thought, was presented as something that happened to her, not to either of the men. My problem isn't that she's not a person but that she's such a weak, craven person.

I also thought the film was more impressive than you did. I certainly wouldn't call it unexciting, and it is very well made and detailed. I get the feeling I'll have to see it again before I can fully appreciate it.

ad said...

I read Stasiland about the time I saw The Lives of Others, which was an interesting experience. One thing I will say in Christa-Maria's defence, is that she put up more resistance than most people recruited as informers.

Abigail , why do you think that Wieslers motive in revealing Christa’s affair to Georg was to “shatter Georg's comfortable existence”? His later interventions seem to have good intentions towards Georg, so why assume that the first one was not?

Which does put Wiesler in a slightly different light.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

One thing I will say in Christa-Maria's defence, is that she put up more resistance than most people recruited as informers.

Well, I suppose these things are always relative.

why do you think that Wieslers motive in revealing Christa’s affair to Georg was to “shatter Georg's comfortable existence”? His later interventions seem to have good intentions towards Georg, so why assume that the first one was not?

Because it's just not the sort of thing that you do out of kindness. That, and the fact that right before he arranges for Georg to see Christa-Maria coming out of the minister's car, Wiesler says that it's time for Georg to learn some painful truths. Which sounds mean-spirited to me.

ad said...

Fair enough. To be honest, it's so long since I have seen the film, I can't remember what he said.

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