Since its premiere in 2006, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s Oscar-winning The Lives of Others has been a favorite of conservative intellectuals. William F. Buckley proclaimed it “the best movie I ever saw,” and accordingly, the film landed the No. 1 spot on National Review’s list of “best conservative movies.” Now comes a volume of admiring essays by some of the leading voices in conservative cultural criticism: Totalitarianism on Screen: The Art and Politics of The Lives of Others, edited by Carl Eric Scott and F. Flagg Taylor IV.
“A truly great work of art typically requires a truly great subject,” write Scott and Taylor in their introduction. The great subject of Lives is the history of the former German Democratic Republic (GDR) and the role of the Stasi, or secret police, in maintaining the regime’s control. Set in 1984 East Berlin (the choice of year is not accidental), it tells the story of a loyal socialist playwright, Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch), who is placed under state surveillance when the Minister of Culture decides to frame Dreyman as an enemy of the state in order to rid himself of a romantic rival for the beautiful stage actress Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck). The man put in charge of the spying operation is a Stasi officer, Captain Gerd Wiesler (the late Ulrich Mühe), who once left alone to observe the couple, comes to identity and sympathize with them.
Out of this initial situation, each character—writer, actress, and spy—must confront a difficult moral dilemma: to follow the commands of their conscience or the state. Will Christa-Maria stay true to Dreyman, even if it means the permanent loss of her stage career? Will Dreyman take a stand against the system and speak out about the epidemic of suicides in the GDR, including that of his friend, a theater director being shunned by order of the Culture Ministry for expressing heterodox views? And will Captain Wiesler complete an investigation he knows to be fraudulent or act to protect the artists he now admires?
Under the brutal, paranoid regime of the GDR, no choice comes without costs, and even the “right” choices lead to terrible tragedy. Dreyman’s decision to act against the state— and Wiesler’s decision to assist him—heightens the pressure on the already wavering Christa-Maria, setting off a chain of events that inexorably ends with her death. The loss leaves Dreyman so shattered that he cannot write, even after the regime’s collapse, until his perusal of the file that the secret police had kept on him discloses to him Wiesler’s role in the affair. Although the two men never meet, the film ends with a reconciliation between victim and perpetrator—the former Stasi man’s purchase of Dreyman’s first novel, which is dedicated to his secret protector.
Much of the debate in Totalitarianism on Screen revolves around the plausibility of this plot, particularly as it concerns Wiesler. Was a transformation of the kind that this character undergoes possible within the Stasi apparatus? On this question, the volume’s contributors take up the criticisms of journalist Anna Funder and historian Timothy Garton Ash, who reviewed the film when it came out. Funder, author of Stasiland, argues that the film is unrealistic because no agent of the Stasi—hardened true believers, to a man—would show mercy to his quarry. What’s more, had a Stasi agent undergone such a metamorphosis, Funder contends, it would not have been possible for him to act on his newfound scruples because the Stasi guarded as zealously against empathy on the part of its agents as it did against subversion on the part of its subjects. Ash, a Brit who was himself the object of Stasi surveillance and who spent many hours interviewing its agents for The File, his 1997 book, dismisses Wiesler’s moral awakening as a fantasy of artistic redemption, encapsulated in a key scene during which Wiesler, from his eavesdropper’s perch in the attic of Dreyman’s apartment building, hears him playing the piano and is moved to tears. “It would take more than the odd sonata and Brecht poem,” writes Ash, “to thaw the driven puritan we are shown at the beginning.”
Editors Scott and Taylor address these objections in turn. In response to Funder, they enlist historians and former dissidents to assess the film’s fidelity to history. Manfred Wilke, the historical adviser to The Lives of Others, has an essay in the volume as does historian Peter Grieder. They provide useful context, noting which elements in the film are backed up by historical fact and which were altered for dramatic purposes. And while Wilke allows that there is no historical precedent for Wiesler in the Stasi files, he does give examples of GDR functionaries who disobeyed orders, fled the country, or even spied for West Germany. Together, they successfully make the case that (in Grieder’s words) Wiesler’s conversion, “while unlikely, is not implausible.”
Of course, as Wilke argues, the film was not intended to be a documentary: rather, it is a kind of fable, framed in an historical context, that treats “the deeply Christian questions of transformation and redemption.” But even if we accept the storyline as plausible, we still might ask if this is the right story to tell about East Germany. Does Donnersmarck “sugarcoat” history in showing us a secret policeman whose experience of art and beauty helps transform him into “a good man”?
Scott and Taylor take seriously Donnersmarck’s humanistic belief in the transforming power of art. In two sensitive interpretations of the film, they complicate what they see as the critics’ overly simplistic judgments. Taylor carefully tracks each step of Wiesler’s trajectory, showing how Donnersmarck prepares the ground for his character’s decisions and that far more than a sonata and poem are necessary to effect his change of heart. Taylor describes Wiesler as an idealist disenchanted with ideology, whose initial commitment to the socialist ideal—pace Funder—ultimately drives him to dissent when the “yawning gap between ideological pretense and reality” becomes too much to bear.
Scott, in turn, examines the role of art in The Lives of Others, and finds it far more nuanced than its critics allow. While the experience of art enables Wiesler’s transformation, Scott perceptively notes that the film tempers this optimistic message with a cautionary theme—how art can become a form of escapism and denial. Each of the two lovers, Dreyman and Christa-Maria, seeks refuge in art from the “ugly truths” of life in the GDR, withdrawing from the public sphere and its attendant demands of moral judgment and action.
Donnersmarck’s point is that such withdrawal is impossible, and that even in an oppressive society, individuals still have moral agency. As Joachim Gauck, now President of Germany and a former anticommunist activist in East Germany, explains in an interview included in the book, “We always have a choice, even in dictatorships. We don’t have every choice, but we can act in many different ways.” Likewise, in one of the volume’s standout essays, the literary critic Paul Cantor shows how the film, with its repeated allusions to Bertolt Brecht and his play The Good Person of Szechwan, turns on its head Brecht’s teaching about the impossibility of doing good in an evil world. Instead, The Lives of Others challenges its viewers with the stark question (in Gauck’s words): “Is civil courage something for you too?”
As Lauren Weiner (the Associate Editor of Law and Liberty) notes in her contribution on the artist as dissident: “Resisting Soviet power was difficult, and even the proudest resisters bowed at times.” Even the most heroic sometimes found it necessary to placate the authorities. The Russian poets Osip Mandelstam and Anna Akhmatova wrote poems in praise of Stalin; Boris Pasternak conformed to the dictates of social realism in his later work. As for the GDR, it was a “participatory dictatorship” where, in the words of Vaclav Havel, “everyone in his own way is both a victim and a supporter of the system.”
Yet Weiner also reminds us that a “nobler” few did resist participating, and highlights the most truculent among the intellectuals portrayed in the film—men like Dreyman’s journalist friend Paul Hauser (Hans-Uwe Bauer), who more or less coaches Dreyman in dissidence. She writes of the real-life musician and poet Wolf Biermann, whose “poems and songs mocking East Germany’s leaders for failing to live up to his socialist ideals got him kicked out of the GDR in 1976,” and whose moving reflections on Donnersmarck’s film are reprinted in this volume.
Of the many excellent essays in Totalitarianism on Screen, Biermann’s contribution gets at the movie’s contradictions best. It exposes the GDR as an inhumane state that destroyed lives, yet it also offers the possibility of reconciliation—even redemption—to people who acted as agents of the regime. Biermann confesses himself “astounded” by the film, which he finds “insane and true and beautiful.” But he cannot disagree with his friends—fellow dissidents—that the film shies away from showing the full cruelty of the GDR system. Biermann tries to imagine the reaction of his friend, Jürgen Fuchs, who died at age 49 of a rare blood cancer that he suspects was caused by deliberate radiation exposure during Fuchs’ imprisonment by the Stasi:
When I watch this film through the eyes of my dead friend the writer Jürgen Fuchs, of course it rings home that in the Hohenschönhausen remand prison things were a lot more brutal than they are in this film. The mild-tempered Jürgen Fuchs would have had a fit had he been sitting there with us. He would have probably said: “Now the myrmidons of the dictatorship are being humanized! GDR life grew more brutal, more gray, and more terrible by the day. Are Stasi criminals like Mielke and Markus Wolf being softened in the wash like poor old Adolf in the last days in the Führerbunker under the Reich’s chancellery?”
And yet Biermann ultimately chooses to look back in empathy and not just in anger. This movie enables him to imagine and understand the lives of others from his own past—the Stasi agents who compiled over 10,000 pages on him; the friends and colleagues who informed on him; the party leaders who exiled him from the country. “For the first time I saw these phantoms as human beings, right down to their inner contradictions,” Biermann writes. “The ghosts are stepping out of the shadows.” But those ghosts are still not at rest, and so Biermann leaves it to us to continue the debate over the history and legacy of the German Democratic Republic, a charge well-answered by the contributors to Totalitarianism on Screen.