Movie review: Das Leben der Anderen

1 Nov

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For many in the eighties, watching news about East Germany was as much about voyeurism as it was about politics. The new country’s tireless adherence to the rigid ideals of communism, its paranoia, and its rise and inevitable fall were a source of morbid fascination for TV audiences. (Photo coutesy of imdb.com)

Turning this on its head, German movie The Lives of Others explores the implications of silent voyeurism and the panoptic existence of East German residents in the seventies and eighties.

The panoptican was French philosopher Foucault’s conceptualisation of the ideal prison environment. Foucault imagined a doughnut like circular prison, where prisoners lived on the outside ring, while prison guards occupied the inner circle, observing prisoners through double sided glass. Prisoners would not be able to see the guards, and would thus never know when they were being observed. They would be compelled to always behave, for fear of discipline if they were caught misbehaving. Behaviour was more powerfully monitored then the days of sovereign punishment, that is, if you were by chance caught misbehaving, you received punishment.

Foucault extended this idea to the modern regulation of behaviour and conformity. Governments govern through silent observation – citizens never know when they are being watched, and so to avoid punishment, they behave, all the time.

East Germany was a prime example of a panoptic society, one in which obsessive observation and conformity to party rules nearly suffocated the population. Surveillance, questioning, imprisonment and ‘silencing’ (either through torture or death) were considered just punishments for citizens who could not conform to the rigid ideals of communism.

The Lives of Others places us into the hearts of two characters who initially support these ideals, but whose beliefs begin to crumble when they see the results of such oppressive assembly like ideals. Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) is a successful playwright, whose writing celebrates the egalitarian ideals of communism, and who is therefore supported by the government.

Party-loyalist and Stasi policeman Captain Gerd Wiesler (played with eerie rigidity by the late Ulrich Muehe) suspects Dreyman of having capitalist tendencies, and pushes for his surveillance.

The lives of the two men are shown in stark contrast. Dreyman lives happily with his girlfriend, actress Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck) in a well worn and old apartment, frequented by friends and filled with their memorabilia and personal effects. They are a seemingly happy and loving couple. Wiesler however lives in one of the newly built, dreary apartment blocks, where each living space is tiny and identical to the next. His apartment contains very little colour, no personal effects and he turns to prostitutes for company.

Wiesler gets permission to observe Dreyman by his superior Lt-Col Anton Grubitz (Ulrich Tukur), who wishes to convict Dreyman so that his girlfriend Sieland becomes available. Party Minister Bruno Hempf (played with delightful monstrosity by Thomas Thieme) lusts after Sieland, and Lt-Col Grubitz knows that proving Dreyman’s guilt will help him gain the minister’s favour, and advance his career.

Wiesler sets up his surveillance with the precision of an man obsessed by his job. It is also the sign of a man whose own life contains little personality or substance. As Wiesler observes the daily activities and conversations of Dreyman and Sieland, his objective surveillance turns into pitiful voyeurism. This voyeurism is chilling in its innocence, because of the power Wiesler wields over the couple – the prison guard observing the unaware yet terrified prisoners. Gradually however, the policeman begins to become an invisible part of the couple’s lives and begins to feel for the difficulties they are experiencing as artists in communist East Germany. As Dreyman starts to realise how the government is destroying both his and Sieland’s artistic passions, Wiesler becomes increasingly protective over their activities and starts to cover up for the couple’s private criticism of the government.

All three characters are clearly being suffocated by the communist regime, and are struggling to find ways to fight against it, and also survive. The characters evolve as the movie continues, imperfectly but in a way that is so human it is painful to watch.

Director and screenplay writer Florian Heckel von Donnersmarck, at a mere 33, has managed to create a masterpiece that cuts the viewer with painful simplicity. The brutality of the East German communist regime is expressed in the fear and paranoia of each measured conversation. And the self-serving nature of voyeurism and observation is illustrated with a rare clarity. Von Donnersmarck and his cast have captured a moment in time that, in its dreariness, says a huge amount about the human race, and the ideals we pursue. It also shows that heroics do not just lie in the outlandish and lauded activities of the politically powerful. They also lie in in the silent but brave acts of the unnamed few.

The movie ends with a simplicity that is powerful and moving. This simplicity characterises the whole film, and forces the audience to create their own reflections. The Lives of Others speaks of our own lives, and our own conformity and complascence as citizens in panoptic societies.

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One Response to “Movie review: Das Leben der Anderen”

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  1. Movie Reviews » Blog Archive » Movie review: Das Leben der Anderen - November 1, 2007

    […] jax wrote an interesting post today on Movie review: Das Leben der AnderenHere’s a quick excerptlebenderanderen.gif. For many in the eighties, watching news about East Germany was as much about voyeurism as it was about politics. The new country’s tireless adherence to the rigid ideals of communism, its paranoia, and its rise and … […]

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