The Lives of Others
The Lives of Others is a film directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck that handles the issues evolving around the totalitarian regime of the German “Democratic” Republic (hereafter abbreviated as the GDR). As soon as the film starts, Donnersmarck starts positioning the audience to see how a totalitarian government worked ideologically but caused much distress to individuals in reality. As one of the audience, I agree largely that The Lives of Others offers insight into a system of society that had great ideals but which, in attempt of achieving that Utopia ended up disregarding the needs of individual lives. Donnersmarck especially manipulates the audience to connect with this central idea through various production techniques.
The socialist GDR regime is portrayed as a clinical, calculating system, run by leaders who saw human feelings as human fallacies. There is no time or place for emotions, no time for “weakness”. Donnersmarck sets this up by confronting the audience with the mechanical characters of the Stasi (State Security). The chilling characterisation of the Stasi is set up by production techniques like the actual acting, cinematography, props, set design and costumes worn by the actors. The Stasi officer Gerd Wiesler wears a muted Prussian blue military uniform, which makes him look sinister and inaccessible. He has no expressions on his face, and interrogates a prisoner for hours, seemingly un-tired even when night falls.. “You need patience, about 40 hours’ worth.” This makes the audience see him – a representative character for the whole regime – robotic. The fact that he even extends his thoughts to collecting an odour sample of the prisoner for potential use, and that he even knows detailed information about the prisoner’s wife and children, provokes the audience to view the socialist regime’s higher officials as omniscient and frighteningly perfect. [Quote: will insert the appropriate quote; don’t know why I haven’t got it written in my film analysis notes] The interrogation room set is designed to recreate the authentic atmosphere of the actual interrogation room used in the 80’s, by using the real equipment used by the Stasi. Wiesler is continuously bombarding the prisoner with interrogative imperatives and he is filmed from low angles in contrast to the prisoner, which clearly organises viewers to see who is in the upper hand in the power hierarchy and reflects on the unforgiving, omni-controlling GDR regime. Donnersmarck ensures this dominating government appears as unforgiving as possible; Wiesler says, “Do you think we imprison people on a whim? If you think our humanistic system capable of such a thing, that alone would justify your arrest.” The audience sees how oppressive the regime is; the government even attempts to control individual psyche.
The psychologically invasive regime is also literally invasive, and intrudes on its citizens’ private lives in order to achieve its goal: “To know everything.” The point of view shot from behind the prisoner and Stasi guard in the very opening gives allusion to the Orwellian idea of “Big Brother is Watching You”. The camera is literally watching the characters from behind; the audience acts as the second-fold “Big Brother” figure by viewing them through the camera. This hand- held “tracking” camera technique empowers the audience to be the Stasi “Big Brother” watching intently on the prisoner’s trajectory. Once this spying motif begins, the audience is constantly reminded that citizens of the GDR do not have much privacy through the camera shots, angles, and details within the actual acting. During Wiesler’s Stasi College lecture, the camera slowly pans across the class, giving the audience an omni-viewing perspective. Donnersmarck positions us as the third person spying on the lecture through the camera, or it could also be interpreted that the audience are “Big Brothers” of the regime watching in on the lecture, trying to catch out any “weak” humans. To top this, the audience later finds out that Grubitz had been listening in on the lecture too. Endless layers of spying and watching are latticed together. When Wiesler is spying on Dreyman at the theatre, the audience sees Dreyman as if they are Wieslers. The mid-long shot of Dreyman through what the audience perceives as binoculars effectively sets up the audience to know that the Stasi are everywhere, watching everybody. The crane shot of the setting at night also adds to the idea that the Stasi are like pseudo-gods; in charge at the politically topmost level and watching everything and listening to everything individuals do and say. When the Stasi bug Dreyman’s house for spying purposes, the audience “spies on” the neighbour Frau Menicke spying on the process through her front door eyehole. These multiple layers of the spying motif have a cumulative effect of reinforcing how invasive the Stasi were. I believe strongly that Donnersmarck has successfully created a climate that gives insight into a system that tried to control everything pristinely at the cost of personal privacy. As a politically active-to-be in terms of suffrage, and as a citizen living in a parliamentary democracy, my audience speculations on this idea is that though there needs to be some sort of surveillance in a human society for order, peace and safety, Wiesler and the system he so strongly believes in is too excessive. On the continuum that spans from complete freedom to Stasi-like control, the right balance needs to be found and maintained so people can be under a watchful, safe system but also have the independence, freedom and rights of privacy.
Another aspect by which Donnersmarck sets up the audience to have insight into the governmental system of the GDR is the idea of battle of “good versus evil” under such a society. This is done mostly through the acting itself. Ulrich Muhe’s detailed expressions and the crafted choreography of his actions communicate enough for the audience to see the gradual change from the staunch, upright socialist officer to the disillusioned, confused Gerd Wiesler. Initially, the audience is manipulated to see Wiesler with the Party, and categorise him as one representative of the “evil” side, while the same audience view the artists as the victims and sympathise with these “good” people. However, with the film’s progress, Wiesler becomes steadily disillusioned by the very ideologies he had so strongly believed in. He starts to change within the oppressive regime, and at the end, because of this detectable change, becomes one of the many demoted workers under the corrupted, power-abusive officials. The audience has several encounters of Wiesler’s internal conflict, oscillating between what he should do as a human being and what he should do as a well-trained ideological socialist. In the first elevator scene, the little boy asks Wiesler if he is really with the Stasi. “Are you really with the Stasi? … They’re bad men who put people in prison, says my dad.” “I see. What’s the name of your…” “My what?” “Your ball. What’s the name of your ball?” This short conversation shows the audience the change that is happening to Wiesler’s character because of the disillusionment of the idealistic world he had had about the GDR. Later, when Dreyman and his friends are testing his apartment for surveillance by openly planning to smuggle Paul Hauser to the west, Wiesler averts away from the rules and does not inform border control. “Just this once, my friend.” Though the audience know that Wiesler has not really saved Dreyman, as far as Wiesler is concerned, he has made a great sacrifice of the person he used to be in order to step closer to excavating the new him. In the ultimate scene showing the audience the final result of Wiesler changing, the camera has a sharp focus on the winter trees then moves down to shoot Wiesler driving Grubitz home. The two characters look almost like a couple; they did share as close a friendship as anyone could in an untrustworthy climate like the GDR. But Grubitz breaks the relationship by firing Wiesler. [Quote: desperate need to take quote down!!] They had gone through school together, grown up together, gone through Stasi training together, worked together – now all that is over too. By stretching the change from “bad” to “good” over a relatively lengthy time period and directing such scenes to be acted with accurate expressions, Donnersmarck shows the audience how challenging it would have been for a character like Wiesler to change, especially given an environment like the GDR. Furthermore, by showing the audience what happens to Wiesler due to changing “sides”, the director gives additional insight into what kind of society the GDR was. People were expected to stick to the ideologies for life, and if any deviation occurred, then they would be drastically reduced as far as power was concerned. In a regime like the GDR, there was no space for changing people, changing hearts.
In The Lives of Others, director Donnersmarck manoeuvres the audience to address the issues of disregarded human emotions, flouted personal privacy and the difficulty of making choices and autonomous decisions under a system like the GDR. Production techniques like cinematography, props and the actual acting were main contributors to reveal the director purpose to the audience. As an audience member, I significantly agree that The Lives of Others offers insight into a regime where the disregard of human needs and disrespect of human wants resulted in a failed Utopia, unlike the ideal the system set out to achieve. Under the regime, there was no time or place for human “fallacies” such as sentiments, need of privacy and the free right to make choices and personal decisions; if there was time or place for such human needs to be met, that would have created the desired Utopia.
Bibliography: The Lives of Others (film) directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck