The Lives of Others

Because things are the way they are, things will not stay the way they are.” (Bertolt Brecht)

Early in the film, Minister Hempf condescendingly mocks the faith in humanity Georg expresses in his plays: “People don’t change,” Hempf says. And in some ways Mr. von Donnersmarck endorses the minister’s point of view, even as he turns its cynicism into cause for hope. Georg and Captain Wiesler, although they occasionally waver and worry, remain true to their essential natures, and thus embody the film’s deepest, most challenging paradox: people do not change, and yet the world does, which eventually requires people to change, too. This paper will argue that change occurs when people see from a different perspective; by this I mean that they see the potential of a different life elsewhere. Sometimes, the key factor that can change a human is to dream about another life. This is what happened to Weisler, to many other individuals within this movie, and to Germany as a nation when the Wall fell.


When we first meet Wiesler, we see a man who believes in the system in which he operates. His beliefs, and those of the Communist party, are reflected in the simple functional nature of his flat. He is a true believer in the rightness of his work, and so he is taken aback when he learns that Minister Bruno Hempf, a former Stasi officer now turned Head of the Cultural Department, is forcing Christa-Maria to have sex with him and paying her with illegal drugs. Wiesler has great respect for this actress, and his morality is offended by this. He also is shaken by the grief that overtakes Dreyman when his friend, director Albert Jerska, commits suicide after having his career wrecked by the Stasi. He realizes that the people for whom he works are not as faithful to the ideology of the nation as they promised to be. Hemf was driven by personal desires more than political values while making decisions; this was truly a sign of betrayal to Wiesler. This is where Wiesler`s spiritual change starts


One of the best scenes in “The Lives of Others” is a small one signaling a transformation has taken place in Wiesler during his surveillance of the playwright, the one destined to celebrate the fourteenth anniversary of the regime. Standing in an elevator in his own apartment building, Weisler is joined by a little boy with his football who looks up at him and asks, “Is it true you work for the Stasi?” Wiesler is stunned and can only reply, “Says who?” The boy responds: “My father.” Habit kicks into gear, and Weisler asks, ” So what is the name of…” before stopping in mid-sentence. “Of what?” the boy asks. A few seconds of awkward silence and Wiesler responds, “Of your football?” In the past, Weisler would have reported the father with no hesitation. The fact that he does not report the little boy`s father is a clear sign of his transformation, which is actually occurring much faster than anyone would have expected.


It is not simply that Wiesler, the state-sanctioned, clandestine predator, develops a measure of sympathy for his quarry as he listens in on Georg’s private, unguarded moments. Surely his training would have inoculated him against this kind of reverse Stockholm syndrome. Instead, Captain looks at Dreymen`s life and envies it. He feels the simplicity of expressing feelings and love. Weisler realizes his charmed life; enjoying a measure of official favor without losing the respect of his fellow artists, who are not all as lucky, or as circumspect, as he is. He becomes more and more curious about the secret of the lives these artists lead; he needs to find out the key to their light carefree souls. Thus, violating all the rules that he himself teaches at the Stasi’s own university, the secret watcher slips into the apartment and steals a volume of poems by Bertolt Brecht. Then we see him lying on a sofa, entranced by one of Brecht’s more elegiac verses. He soon understands that maybe life should be lived as freely as birds fly. Maybe what these artists are doing is not wrong; maybe he is the one who has been deceived by the lies about the things around him and in which he believes.


Wiesler becomes convinced of Georg’s essential innocence and takes steps to protect him even as Georg is driven toward actions that implicate him, for the first time, in dissident activity. The plot, as it acquires the breathless momentum of a thriller, also takes on the outlines of a dark joke. The poet and the secret policeman — both writers, in their differing fashions — may be the only two true patriots in the whole G.D.R.; in other words, the only people who take the Republic’s stated ideals at face value. But since the nation itself functions by means of the wholesale and systematic betrayal of those ideals, the only way Wiesler and Georg can express their loyalty is by committing treason.


A terrible sadness lies at the heart of “The Lives of Others” — a reckoning of lives and talents wasted by a state with no good reason to exist apart from the maintenance of its own power. The people felt the same sadness as the nation remained divided into two with no real way to freely communicate. But situations never stay the same; after all the Wall falls  by the end of the movie. I do believe that it is extremely complicated to change a human and his heart, however, I also believe that only different circumstances can change the individual. People are almost the same as long as they are in the same spot, but once they are removed from their roots and see something different, they are not the same anymore. “The Lives of Others” could at first seem to reflect the cultural ideas of pro-communist East Berlin in 1984. However, this film is less a picture of the pros and cons of communism and more a story about humankind’s struggle to develop psychologically and spiritually; the struggle to believe in the best. The film’s cultural features are a powerful backdrop to showcase the need for humankind to understand, respect, and value each other, which can only come with change. Wiesler did not know what a blessing was bestowed upon him when he was put in charge of monitoring the artists`activities. Their humanness, their creativity and passion, and their love for each other stimulated Wiesler’s imagination and his humanity. The subtle shift of awareness, understanding, and positive feeling of Stasi police agent Captain Wiesler toward the playwright Dreyman and his actress-love Christa-Marta Sieland shows us that empathy, compassion and kindness comes from seeing the ways in which we are all alike, rather than the ways that we are different.

At one point in the movie, Weisler’s helper tells him: “I prefer mentoring artists to priests or peace activists.” Artists are free to express the forbidden. Artists can envision the change of the world faster than anyone else. We humans are like the leaves of a tree. We change color and shape with the seasons, and eventually we one day fall. Some leaves are lucky enough to be transported by the wind to the oceans while other leaves are eaten by insects. The major difference is that human life does not depend greatly on luck but on the consequences of past actions. The movie is not all about the bigger changes, but also those small ones that accumulate leading to the main change. In the same way that Weisler changes his view about artists, he changes his mind while choosing his drink at the bar from a soda water to a vodka, then to a double shot. Likewise, Georg, who does not know how to wear a tie, eventually wears one at his friend’s funeral. As Weisler reads Brecht’s, “Because things are the way they are, things will not stay the way they are.” Change in people is simply inevitable because the world changes. When the Berlin Wall fell down, it did not simply change the government but all its people, too.