The Lives of Others


in Films and movies, Security

The Lives of Others (Leben der Anderen, Das) is a potent and pertinent film: a reminder of recent history that speaks to ongoing questions about surveillance, as well as the human and inhuman aspects of state security organizations. The film is especially impressive because of the subtlety with which the topic is approached, and the space for contemplation it affords to the viewer.

The cinematography of the film is elegant to the extent that one is in danger of missing subtitles on account of preferring to keep one’s eyes where the film-makers wanted them. The only minor lapse in good judgment is in a few scenes where the use of very wide-angle lenses produces an unwelcome and disconcerting effect. The set designs, costumes, and performs are all extremely well chosen, really managing to convey a certain vision of life under the GDR.

The film struck me as a kind of inversion of Good Morning, Night (Buongiorno, notte) which I saw back in November of last year. One explores the moral dilemma of a member of Stasi, the infamous East German secret police, while the other is about a member of the Red Brigades, an Italian terrorist movement in the 1970s. In a way, both films are comments on how people can and do deal with the structures in which they find themselves. In particular, how exposure to the humanity and vulnerability of others affects one’s pre-existing convictions.

People in Oxford may find it useful to know that it is playing at the Phoenix Cinema on Walton Street until Wednesday May 9th.

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Milan May 7, 2007 at 12:08 am

Daily Info has showtimes and reviews

Milan May 7, 2007 at 12:30 am
Anon May 7, 2007 at 1:28 am

As someone partly of Czech descent, you might find Vaclev Havel’s most recent book interesting. It’s called To The Castle and Back.

Rob May 7, 2007 at 1:09 pm

Buongiorno Notte was much better than The Lives of Others, I thought, for reasons I outlined at, but most people I’ve spoken to about it didn’t really seem to agree with me. It just seemed at times like a piece of liberal – in a pejorative sense – mythmaking: as soon as anyone realises that they are doing wrong, a realisation which is surprisingly easy to come to, immediately they stop doing it. Which rather makes the persistence of a state with tens of thousands of security men and hundreds of thousands of informers somewhat odd.

Milan May 7, 2007 at 2:45 pm

Spoiler warning

I think the motivation of the defecting character in The Lives of Others is pretty believable. To spy on people for what you believe to be the welfare of the state is one thing. To be commanded to incriminate an innocent person to facilitate the lusty adventures of your superior is quite another.

As for the ‘mythmaking’ you describe, the film seemed to quite convincingly present how ordinary people could be made into informants and kept that way. Perhaps the clearest illustration is when the silence of the woman across the hall is purchased with a few seconds worth of well-chosen threats.

Antonia May 7, 2007 at 3:09 pm

Damn. I wanted to see that and Half Nelson and The Science of Sleep and a few others. Maybe I’ll get to see it sometime.

Rob May 8, 2007 at 8:17 am

“To be commanded to incriminate an innocent person to facilitate the lusty adventures of your superior is quite another.”

But a) Dreyman is not innocent, b) at the beginning, Wiesler is suspicious of him even though he hasn’t done anything yet and c) I really don’t think that for a Stasi man of twenty years experience they would be so different. The mythmaking I was referring to was the way in which that transformation of Wiesler seems quite unmotivated: he just realises he is doing wrong and stops, as if he’d not spent his entire adult life doing it. Buongiorno Notte makes it clear why the kidnapper who nearly cracks does; The Lives of Others doesn’t do the same with Wiesler, and so it doesn’t work (in that sense).

Jack May 10, 2007 at 4:10 am

An anonymous reader writes “German researchers at the Frauenhofer Institute said Wednesday that they were launching an attempt to reassemble millions of shredded East German secret police files using complicated computerized algorithms. The files were shredded as the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and it became clear that the East German regime was finished. Panicking officials of the Stasi secret police attempted to destroy the vast volumes of material they had kept on everyone from their own citizens to foreign leaders.”

SoS May 12, 2007 at 5:37 pm

1984-style police states required lots of people. East Germany employed one informant for every 66 citizens. Today, there’s no reason to have anyone watch anyone else; computers can do the work of people.

SoS May 12, 2007 at 5:38 pm

Doh! Wrong link

Milan May 24, 2007 at 1:12 am

Germany adopts Stasi scent tactic

The German authorities are compiling a database of human scents to track down possible violent protesters at the G8 summit in June.

The method, once used by East Germany’s secret police, the Stasi, involves collecting scent samples in advance from selected targets.

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