Thursday, October 11, 2007

The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen)

Spoiler Warning It would be better to watch the movie before reading this post.

According to the description on the Netflix envelope, The Lives of Others (a title evoking Vasari's Lives of the Artists), set in East Berlin in the 1980s, is “…a nuanced portrait of life under the watchful eye of the state police as a high-profile couple is bugged. When a successful playwright and his actress companion become the subjects of the Stasi’s secret surveillance program, their friends, family and even those doing the watching find their lives changed too.” What this movie is actually about is art and the role of the artist in society.

In one of the opening scenes, a Stasi officer and the minister of culture discuss the playwright Georg Dreyman, who is supposed to be the only non-subversive writer in the country “who is also read in the West.” Why are there so many subversive artists in totalitarian regimes? Artists are always troublemakers to some degree and the lack of freedom in these states is particularly grating. There is something more at work, though, than a simple desire for freedom. These regimes force a materialist understanding of what it means to be human onto their citizens - even the Stasi prostitutes work on a tight schedule. This understanding implicitly denies the very reason art exists in all civilizations and societies.

At the heart of this movie is the question of what it means to be a human being, and, more importantly, a good human being, and the role art plays in this.

Wiesler, the agent in charge of the surveillance of Dreyman is part of the Stasi. The Stasi’s goal is to ‘know everything.’ This knowledge though is limited to what can be written down, quantified and recorded with the various machines that surround Wiesler throughout the film. In one scene, two Stasi agents discuss a system for classifying artists into five types with matching prison conditions for each. Of course, what an artist attempts to convey cannot be captured in these terms.

One of the central themes of Dreyman’s plays is that people can change. This is a claim that the minister of culture denies. This story, though, is of the transformation of Wiesler through art. At Dreyman’s birthday party, his former director, who has been blacklisted, gives him a piece of music called “Sonata for a Good Man.” Later, when the director hangs himself, Dreyman plays this piece of music. Wiesler is listening through hidden microphones, and, despite his usual stoic demeanor, is profoundly moved by the piece. At this point, Dreyman says to the actress Christa-Maria, “You know what Lenin said about Beethoven’s Appassionata. ‘If I keep listening to it, I won’t finish the revolution’. Can anyone who has heard this music – I mean truly heard it – really be a bad person?”

Wiesler is not an artist, but he has become part of the true audience. When he sees Christa-Maria at a bar, torn between continuing her forced affair with the minister of culture and staying with Dreyman and jeopardizing her career, he responds when she asks whether she should sell herself for art that she already has art, “I’m your audience,” he says, “You’re a great artist. Don’t you know that?” She replies, before returning to Dreyman, “And you’re a good man.” It is through contact with art that Wiesler finds the strength and inspiration to defend Dreyman from his own organization. In doing so he takes a great risk and the result is that his already dreary life is made even worse. After his promotion ban, Wiesler, without his uniform and powerful position, appears smaller but more human.

Chris McClure

1 comment:

Erica Alini said...

You know when you read your thoughts you could never quite formulate properly in someone else's words?

"These regimes force a materialist understanding of what it means to be human onto their citizens...This understanding implicitly denies the very reason art exists in all civilizations and societies."

This was one of those times.