The Lives of Others (2007)

This film was clever, but not in the “Sixth Sense.”  The story, as it was unfolding, was predictable in the predictable sense, but it still left you feeling fulfilled as a viewer because it is satisfying watching compassion develop on screen.

I like the idea of the watcher (Wiesler) becoming enmeshed in the lives of those he’s watching. The film portrays, obviously, the lowering of the boundary of otherness from the perspective of the watcher in this case. It literally shows compassion developing on screen. It shows a critical engagement with the world around and a nonacceptance of things just because they’re “told” to you, or just because that’s the way you’ve been perceiving reality all of your life. 

The best part of the film is watching the learning process (of compassion for others) unfold. It begins when Wiesler finds out the reason he’s watching Dreyman: because Dreyman’s girlfriend is being pursued by a top-ranking gov’t official and he wants to get Dreyman out of the way. For Wiesler, a REAL “company man,” this is fundamentally unacceptable because he does his job not because of politics or power, but because he believes what he is doing is right for the State. Thus begins his questioning of authority, and it takes him all the way through until near the end when he is demoted to a crummy job as a letter opener (complete with steam machines and a dark basement) for his conscientious meddling in the Dreyman case.

Then The Wall falls and Wiesler no longer works for the State. But afterwards, neither Wiesler nor Dreyman meet each other, despite Dreyman’s knowledge of the entire investigation and the complete surveillance of his life (which he learns after the fact).  Dreyman even does a little surveillance himself, but like Wiesler, cannot bring himself to meet his secret protector.  The film ends on Wiesler picking up Dreyman’s book, Sonata for a Good Man, and he finds the book is dedicated to him.  Poetic indeed because both are Good Men.

The ironic thing is that both men are secret protectors for each other. Wiesler protects Dreyman because he knows he’s a good man and shouldn’t be under surveillance just because the gov’t official wants to get laid.  And Dreyman knows Wiesler is a good man because after reading his vast Stasi files, he knows Wiesler changed a lot of information in order to protect him, not to mention he absconded with his treasonous typewriter in the nick of time. In those scenes in the film when the viewer knows Wiesler is changing what he heard coming from Dreyman’s apartment, the viewer can’t help but feel like Wiesler really wants to be a part of Dreyman’s life.  And in the end, he does become a part of Dreyman’s life because Dreyman’s life is only possible, in the now, because of Wiesler’s willingness to subvert an authority that was fundamentally flawed, and because Wiesler, as a newly compassionate human being, had evolved away from a simple task-ape, into a fully functioning and critically engaging autonomous individual.

We can say all sorts of things about the power of surveillance (thank you, Mr. Foucault) and the atrocities the Germans levelled on their own people, etc. etc. But I’m more interested in the truly human that this film so directly presents. Yes, it’s important to note that the USA Patriot Act pretty much guarantees the same ridiculous government access to us, as the extensive network of Stasi spies did for East Germans.  The truly ironic thing is that “we” think we’re watching an historical movie (made in the present, of course), when we’re really just watching what’s unfolding for us in the present.   Mr. Shakespeare did this well by presenting things “over in Verona” or wherever, but we can still apply this same theory today. We may be watching a film made by a German in 2006 and set in 1980s East Germany, but we are wholly right to insinuate its relevance to the good ole USA since 2001.

So when will the “Royal We”  re-learn humanity?  And can we do it one person at a time, as this film implies?  What is the proverbial Wall that will have to fall for us to throw off the shackles of “our” current inhumanity?  Gitmo? Something else? I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

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