Mind Matters — The Lives of Others

1984 in East Berlin: the setting of the German movie, The Lives of Others. This was an era of Stalin-esque machinations in Eastern Europe and Russia, replete with wiretapping, secret files on “suspect citizens”, interrogations, imprisonments, friends-turned-informants. In this repressive atmosphere, we find a Stasi (state secret police) officer, Wiesler, asked by his superiors to bug the home of a playwright, Georg. This, all because a corrupt government official wants to seduce Georg’s girl friend, the stunning actress Christa.

Why you may wonder am I writing about this movie (now in DVD) as a psychological topic? I found the movie compelling on a number of psychological fronts. For one, it was chilling to me as a psychologist to see how psychology was misused by the Stasi to break people down in interrogations. We find Captain Wiesler at the start of the movie interrogating a young man and then using a tape of this interrogation in his class to depict to his budding Stasi students how to breakdown the “suspect”. When a student responds how inhumane the treatment of the detainee is, Wiesler quietly notes this remark next to the student’s name, a first red flag to this teacher for treasonous behavior on the part of his pupil.

In an interview about his film, director and writer, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, perceives his character Wiesler as wedded to his principles, to his ideology at the cost of all else. Wiesler lives a cold and isolated life. Coming home to an empty apartment bereft of any signs of warmth, he eats a meal of rice flavored with ketchup. When he wiretaps the playwright’s apartment and begins to observe the “lives of others” from his perch in the apartment house attic, there begins to be a softening of Wiesler’s psyche. The man who would sacrifice even his mother to principle is beginning to feel the stirrings of life through watching others live more fully. These artists are loving and make love, they celebrate life, and their apartment brims with literature and art. As time passes, the wiretapper’s perceptions of who is the “enemy of the state” begin to evolve. He finds a connection with them that they are unaware of. The playwright he is to find incriminating evidence against is living an “ordinary” life; but it is a life, not isolated.

The fact that Georg the playwright needs people and connection in his life is something the Stasi as aware of. Wiesler’s ambitious-for-power superior tells him what Georg’s psychological type is, how artists have been psychologically classified so that when they are imprisoned their distress can be “enhanced.” Georg, who is so dependent upon friends and connection with others would be thrown into complete isolation.

But Wiesler begins to protect Georg from the Stasi’s power hungry and corrupt bosses. Wiesler’s principles begin to become integrated with feeling. From a distance he may even begin to feel love. There is a scene in which Wiesler, in his eavesdropping on Georg, discovers that Georg’s friend has committed suicide (not an uncommon occurrence in the Eastern Bloc at that time). Rather than tirade against the state, Georg, finds solace in playing the piano. Wiesler is deeply moved. His soul has been touched.

Henckel von Donnersmarck notes in an interview that Lenin did not want to listen to Beethoven’s Appasionata because it would in essence make him too soft for revolution. His principles would have been transformed by feeling.

As the wall around Wiesler’s heart crumbles, eventually the Berlin Wall does too. In 1989, East and West Berlin became united. Wiesler, because of his change of heart, does not win friends among the higher ups. His commanding comrades, of course, land on their feet, opportunists as they are. For them, the difference between communism and capitalism was never about principle or ideology—power and greed always being the bottom line.

Nevertheless, the good man here is the one who even from the distance of an attic and a wire in a wall can redeem his soul and open his heart to feeling empathy for another.