Can Art Change Big Brother?

Ulrich Muhe in "The Lives of Others"

Film Friday

I finally got around to seeing the Oscar-winning German film The Lives of Others (2006) and was deeply moved. After thinking about the reasons why, I realized it was because the film asserts one of my deepest beliefs: the ability of art to change people’s lives.

The life in this case is that of a member of East Germany’s secret police. The year is 1984—more on that significant date at the end of this post—and Hauptman Wiesler is monitoring Georg Dreyman, an idealistic and somewhat naïve playwright who is one of the few East German artists taken seriously in the West. Although Dreyman appears loyal to the East German regime, he is the target of a high ranking official who is jealous of his relationship with one of the country’s leading actresses, Christa-Maria Sieland.

In the course of the film, the playwright becomes a dissident activist, but Wiesler doesn’t turn him in because he himself is being changed as he eavesdrops. Because his own life is a sterile hell, he starts feeding off of “the lives of others”—which is to say Dreyman and Sieland.

Central to his fascination is the way their lives are enriched by art. At one point Weisler finds himself crying when Dreyman plays a Beethoven sonata on his piano following the suicide of a fellow playwright. At another, Wiesler “borrows” a collection of Brecht’s poetry from Dreyman’s apartment, and we see him reading “Memory of Marie A.” The poem captures the dream of a deeper and more meaningful world:

One day in blue-moon September,
Silent under a plum tree,
I held her, my silent pale love
In my arms like a fair and lovely dream.
Above us in the summer skies,
Was a cloud that caught my eye.
It was so white and high up,
and when I looked up, it was no longer there.

And since that moment, many a September
Came sailing in, then floated down the stream.
No doubt the plum trees were cut down for timber
And if you ask what happened to my dream
I shall reply: I cannot now remember
Though what you have in mind I surely know.
And yet her face: I really don’t recall it.
I just recall I kissed long ago.

Even the kiss would have been long forgotten
If that white cloud had not been in the sky.
I know the cloud, and shall know it forever,
It was pure white and, oh, so very high.
Perhaps the plum trees still are there and blooming.
Perhaps that woman has six children too.
But that white cloud bloomed only for a moment:
When I looked up, it vanished in the blue.

I did some research on the film and came across an interesting critique by Anna Funder, author of Stasiland, who put into question my faith in the ability of people to change. She took offense at the depiction of a repentant Stasi member because she said there are no reports of former East German agents changing:

The film is more of a basic expression of belief in humanity than an account of what actually happened. The terrible truth is that the Stasi provide no material for a “basic expression of belief in humanity.” For expressions of conscience and courage, one would need to look to the resisters. It is this choice, to make a film about the change of heart of a Stasi man, that turns the film, for some, into an inappropriate – if unconscious – plea for absolution of the perpetrators.

Funder notes that, in point of fact, some former Stasi members have become reactionary members of the new Germany and also have the gall to claim victim status, even as they are generally doing fairly well.

I’m sympathetic with Funder’s point. At the same time, there’s something to be said for creating an image of flawed humanity and revealing a hunger for redemption. I don’t believe that such people are altogether incapable of change. If they were, the world would be (in the words of Marlow in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness), “too dark — too dark altogether.”

For my research I also talked about the film to a German professor friend—Reinhard Zachau at the University of the South in Sewanee—who likes the film but mentioned some of the objections. But he also said the film is very realistic in parts and mentioned the scene where an editor of Der Spiegel meets with Dreyman and smuggles an article on East German suicides across the border.

Reinhard too met with a dissident writer, Stefan Heym, in the 1970s and says that because of eavesdropping they had to meet in a park, as occurs in the film. Reinhard also accepted some of Heym’s writings and was extensively queried about them by a young bureaucrat when he went across the border. In the end, however, he was allowed to take them.

On another note, I find a couple of connections with George Orwell’s 1984. One is the psychological sophistication of the Stasi.  In a chilling scene, one of the Stasi bosses explains how they will break Heyman if they find anything on him:

I have to show you something: “Prison Conditions for Subversive Artists: Based on Character Profile.” Pretty scientific, eh? And look at this: “Dissertation Supervisor, A. Grubitz.” That’s great, isn’t it? I only gave him a B. They shouldn’t think getting a doctorate with me is easy. But his is first-class. Did you know that there are just five types of artists? Your guy, Dreyman, is a Type 4, a “hysterical anthropocentrist.” Can’t bear being alone, always talking, needing friends. That type should never be brought to trial. They thrive on that. Temporary detention is the best way to deal with them. Complete isolation and no set release date. No human contact the whole time, not even with the guards. Good treatment, no harassment, no abuse, no scandals, nothing they could write about later. After 10 months, we release. Suddenly, that guy won’t cause us any more trouble. Know what the best part is? Most type 4s we’ve processed in this way never write anything again. Or paint anything, or whatever artists do. And that without any use of force. Just like that. Kind of like a present.

Wiesler is so chilled that, even though he has come prepared to turn Dreyman in, he changes his mind. It costs him his job but ultimately redeems him.

In another parallel, Dreyman’s mistress Christa-Maria, like Julia in 1984, betrays her love and puts her career over his soul. Are the works suggesting that women are weaker than men when it comes to holding on to personal integrity? If so, this seems a false note. But the film still impresses.


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  1. Jason
    Posted September 2, 2011 at 1:42 am | Permalink

    I read the title “Can Art Change Big Brother?” and immediately thought of this film – in the nanosecond it took my mouse to scroll down to the picture, I realized that it was precisely “The Lives of Others” you were writing about today. Big Brother watches in many ways, it seems!

    Isn’t it wonderful that the art-fueled conversion begins with the minor transgression of book theft? (Perhaps in conjunction with the disarming little boy in the elevator, who says something like “My parents say you [i.e. Stasi officers] are very bad people.”) If I recall correctly, the Stasi-man breaks into the apartment with eerie coolness, then looks like a nervous schoolboy as he “borrows” the book.

    By the way, it’s “Wiesler,” not “Weisler.” The typo got me thinking:
    Suddenly, “Weisler” has echoes of “the little wise one” (Ger. “weise” = Eng. “wise”) for me.
    “Wiesler,” meanwhile, is very close to “Wiesel.”

  2. Robin Bates
    Posted September 2, 2011 at 5:55 am | Permalink

    Thanks for catching the misspelling, Jason, which I’ve corrected.

    Hearing from you in Slovenia took me back to my own encounters with surveillance, this in 1987 Yugoslavia when I was there (in Ljubljana) on a Fulbright. I was living on Ho Chi Minh Street (so one of the few Americans in the city lived on Ho Chi Minh Street–I can guarantee you that there has never been a street so named in the United States, nor is there one now in Slovenia), and while I don’t know if I was wiretapped or not (Julia remembers some guys coming by and spending a lot of time messing with our phone), I know that our mail was examined. We had a student who came over and stayed with us–an African American who had lived with us in College and came over to help with the kids–and he would suddenly receive a bundle of two months worth of mail all at the same time. There was no attempt to hide the fact that it had been opened. It was like the surveillance guy in the Jules Feiffer play Little Murders who is satirized for having no pride in his job.

    That being said, Yugoslavia was not the Iron Curtain, and in 1987-88 it was opening up as a society. My friend Mladen Dolar felt no hesitation about calling me up and complaining about the government. So even if we were wiretapped, it wasn’t a problem.


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