The Lives of Others drew me in early with an intense opening scene. After that, there isn’t a whole lot of action to fill over two hours, so it’s considerably slower much of the way. On the other hand, you can make the case that psychologically there’s always a lot going on, and it doesn’t lose much if any of that early intensity.
So it’s a movie you maybe have to be in the right mood for, have to be willing to make a little extra effort to stick with (though less than many subtitled movies of this length), but if you do, it’s worth it. There’s a lot of morally and psychologically interesting stuff going on.
The film is about the East German secret police—the Stasi. In the opening scene, a prisoner is broken in an extended interrogation through the use of sleep deprivation. Tapes of the case are then used in a lecture by a Stasi agent (who turns out to be the central character of the movie) to explain interrogation methods to a classroom of new agents. Clinically, analytically, emotionlessly, he lays out for them precisely what was done and why it worked. Ominously, he makes a little notation next to the name of a student who asks a question about whether such harsh methods are really necessary.
The Stasi did not kill or torture as many citizens of their country as the secret police in some other totalitarian states have. Nor certainly did they reach beyond their borders to victimize people in the way that, say, the Gestapo did as territory fell under Nazi control during World War II. Nor were the East German people reduced to the kind of abject poverty and basic slave status that some totalitarian regimes have imposed on their people.
But where the Stasi would rank near the top (or bottom) of totalitarian regimes would be in maintaining an Orwellian society of massive surveillance, and perpetual fear and distrust.
The number of Stasi agents was far greater per capita than, say, KGB agents in the Soviet Union. But beyond that, there was a massive network of informants who were not formally employees of the Stasi but regularly provided them with information. Plus there were an even greater number of people who provided information one time or occasionally. One estimate I read is that if you count these one time and occasional informants, about 1 in 6 or 7 East Germans were Stasi agents or snitched to the Stasi. Including a very large number of children, by the way.
These informants were recruited by the carrot or stick (no doubt more so the latter), given a chance at certain perks or at least the chance to avoid the kind of punishment that awaited those upon whom they informed.
Furthermore, a huge number of residences and businesses were bugged by the Stasi, and phones were routinely tapped and mail opened.
The Stasi knew the most intimate details of people’s lives. What little they didn’t know, people could never know they didn’t know, so the atmosphere throughout the country was one of always having to assume you had no secrets, no privacy, no one you could trust.
The Stasi agent in the movie, we come to find out, is something of a fanatic, a true believer. He has no qualms about the Stasi methods because he believes them to be necessary to promote the greater good of a socialist society. (Just as the typical person working in the American prison system doesn’t think he’s somehow doing something wrong in being part of a system that keeps more of its citizens in cages per capita than any society in the world. If people are in prison, they must be bad people who did bad things, after all.)
His gradual moral transformation results from his coming to realize just how little the people he’s working with and for share his idealism, how the methods in fact are being used to keep a corrupt regime entrenched in power, and to reward the Party bigwigs with massive material benefits and all the other perks of illicit power, such as the capacity to extort sex from women who would otherwise never have anything to do with you, or ruin the lives of your personal enemies.
There’s no indication, though, that he comes to question the methods themselves. Morally, I’m much more of a “means” than an “ends” guy, so I reject these sorts of methods long before you ever get to the question of what they’re being used for. I don’t allow myself the liberty to inflict sleep deprivation on another human being and keep them under abusive interrogation. I don’t first have to ascertain how I think the acquired information will be used in order to make that determination.
But that’s not to say I don’t see his moral development as being a positive one. He’s moving in the right direction certainly, even if I’m not with him a hundred percent.
The storyline is that this Stasi agent has been assigned to surveil a playwright.
The playwright is not even particularly suspicious, from the standpoint of the Stasi. One agent remarks that he’s about the only artist who isn’t clearly opposed to the regime, in fact. He has friends in the Party, including even the dictator’s wife. He has walked a fine line of staying loyal enough to the regime to be allowed to continue to work and achieve a certain level of fame and material reward, while not so blatantly selling out and siding with them as to lose all respect and all connections with the artists that are not looked upon so favorably by the regime.
But he is put under surveillance because, one, why not? Almost everyone is, and you never know what you might turn up. Maybe he’s an opponent of the state and has just hidden it a little better than most. But more importantly, two, a Party bigwig is having sex with the largely unwilling girlfriend of the playwright, and would just as soon get this rival out of the way so he can steal his woman more fully.
Though the internal moral conflict of the Stasi agent may be the central one in the film, really multiple characters—those who aren’t already hopelessly corrupt—face such moral dilemmas. In such an inhumane, rightsless society, what are your obligations? How much may you cooperate to get along? How much of a price should you be willing to pay to oppose, or at least refuse to participate in, such evil?
Are you obligated to be a martyr? Must you lose your career, go to prison, undergo torture, die, in order to avoid the taint of being a part of this monstrous system?
On one level I see something like this and I say, “Welcome to my world.” I think it’s just part of the human condition that we’re all making morally wrong compromises by doing what we need to do to stay alive at all. Life itself—or the social reality as a whole that people have created—is the greatest Stasi of all, in my view. We flatter ourselves, or think ourselves fortunate, that these dilemmas only occur in extreme and unusual circumstances, like under totalitarian regimes, but that’s because we don’t want to admit that we face them every day of our lives.
(And yes, I know my philosophy—that martyrdom is morally obligatory for pretty much all people at all times—is extreme and implausible to almost everyone.)
But that’s not to deny that there are differences of degree. No one’s hands are clean in this life, but some people make a lot fewer compromises than others and are somewhat less impure. Just because you’re not going to be perfect doesn’t mean it’s unimportant which of the imperfect paths you choose.
In my view, we’re all kind of here on borrowed time. We’re here because we’re selfishly, wrongfully clinging to life, and so the least we can do is mitigate our wrong by trying to live as otherwise ethical a life as possible.
I definitely was interested in what choices the characters made, what risks they were willing to take. I found the Stasi agent to mostly be a sympathetic character, but I could feel for the playwright and others as well.
I appreciate that the movie is mostly not difficult to follow. You have to pay attention, but really there are only about half a dozen characters you need to keep track of, and there are no devices intended to add artificial obscurity, like unidentified dream sequences or scenes taken out of chronological order.
I suppose the movie is dumbed down or simplified to a certain extent compared to real life, but less so than most movies. There’s a moral complexity to the situations, and plenty of characters who are not solely heroes or solely villains.
There is a multi-part epilogue to the movie, which works well. I thought the very end of this ending was particularly nice.
The Lives of Others is a movie worth seeing and worth thinking about, on multiple levels that I’ve barely touched on here.