A loyal agent for the Stasi spies on a playwright and his actress girlfriend. Intent on revealing their disloyalty to the GDR, the agent becomes involved in – and transformed by – their lives.
The Lives of Others
(Das leben der anderen)
Written and Directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
-by Stuart Voytilla
The Lives of Others is a story about transformation and learning how to do the right thing. This film also reveals the interdependence of physical and emotional journeys that characters often take. In some stories, the protagonist may initially enter the journey anticipating an emotional change or elixir; romance and romantic comedy are two genres that regularly celebrate a character’s willing pursuit of emotional growth. For other journeys, the Hero may not initially realize that he or she needs to change; their view of life may be clouded by a flaw or misperception, or even restricted from seeing life’s potential benefits. This protagonist begins a trek determined to accomplish a physical goal, unprepared that this pursuit will transform him or her in an emotional and significant way. Such is Wiesler’s Journey in The Lives of Others.
Captain Wiesler initiates his journey to reveal playwright Georg Dreyman as an enemy of Socialism. This is Wiesler’s physical goal, and one that he willingly pursues as part of his Ordinary World as a loyal agent of East Germany’s secret police, Stasi. Initially a dispassionate observer, Wiesler becomes an active participant in the lives of Dreyman and Christa-Maria, and his loyalty to his career and government crumbles. His transformation becomes a poignant metaphor for the collapse of the German Democratic Government. In Act III, the fall of the Berlin Wall signals a resurrection for Germany and for Wiesler; the former agent is honored by Dreyman for his service as a ‘good man. ‘
Since movies allow us to show character, revealed by action, we can appreciate von Donnersmarck’s choice to mark Wiesler’s transformation by his profession. Initially, Wiesler’s job is secluded in an attic, with earphones attached to his head, listening and monitoring the secrets of others. He sacrifices his career for the lives of Georg and Christa-Maria. Still under the Stasi, Wiesler steams envelopes. But with Glasnost, Wiesler leaves the basement steaming room, and soon serves his country and his countrymen as a mail carrier. No longer the isolated revealer of secrets, he now walks the streets as a deliverer of people’s privacy.
But Wiesler isn’t the only character that grows in this story. He becomes a catalyst that triggers transformation in the others that he observes. Notably:
- Georg Dreyman goes from celebrated and loyal playwright of the GDR to activist against the system.
- Christa-Maria transforms from loving girlfriend to tragic informant.
As you explore this movie, also consider how art, or lack of it, defines a character’s life:
- Art provides contrast between protagonist and antagonist, for example, Wiesler’s austere apartment versus Dreyman’s richly decorated flat.
- After seven years of being blacklisted, Jerska questions his life for he’s no longer allowed to create his art. How can he be a director without a play to direct?This realization pushes him toward suicide.
- Wiesler’s supervisor, Grubitz, relishes that their interrogation practices effectively destroys the creative life of the artist.
- To show his allegiance to the system, Wiesler threatens to destroy Christa-Maria’s ‘life’ in the theatre. This pushes her to reveal the hidden typewriter. However, she realizes that by informing upon her boyfriend she may have retained her life on stage, but she’s destroyed the creator of her stage world.
- After Christa-Maria’s death, Dreyman can no longer write. When he discovers that his apartment was wired, and that Wiesler protected him, Dreyman elevates Wiesler’s life into art with his published work ‘Sonata for a Good Man. ‘
JERSKA AS MENTOR
Jerska becomes an important mentor for both Dreyman and Wiesler. Jerska is Dreyman’s master director, but he’s been silenced by an informant. As Wiesler observes Dreyman, he too becomes influenced by Jerska:
- Wiesler questions the evidence that destroyed Jerska’s career and life.
- Wiesler ‘borrows’ the book of Brecht that Jerska was reading at the party, thus bringing this inspirational art into his own apartment.
- Wiesler cries as Dreyman plays the ‘Sonata for a Good Man’, a birthday gift from Jerska and the inspiration for Dreyman’s final dedication to Wiesler’s sacrifice.
And of course, we must consider the significance of Jerska’s gift as it helps structure the story.
Jerska’s gift of the ‘Sonata for a Good Man’ marks the turning points of the Journey of Transformation for both Dreyman and Wiesler. This birthday gift was intended to push Dreyman to act as the ‘good man. ‘The unwrapping of the gift is a Turning Point from Act I to Act II in Dreyman’s journey, and sets up the larger Journey’s Crossing of the Threshold.
Jerska’s suicide forces Dreyman to do the right thing, and compose the article for Der Spiegel. The Sonata’s title resonates during the scene in the tavern when Wiesler helps Christa-Maria, and she thanks this ‘good man. ‘Their encounter and Jerska’s suicide/Dreyman’s decision to write the article are significant during the Journey’s Ordeal or Midpoint.
During the Journey’s Road Back Sequence, and the Plot Point from Act II to Act III, Wiesler acts as the ‘good man’ and steals the typewriter. During the story’s final moments, the Sonata’s title becomes the title for Dreyman’s book that celebrates Wiesler’s sacrifice, and completes Wiesler’s Resurrection as a ‘Good Man. ‘
In the following Journey Breakdown, I’ve presented some of the key story moments with an interpretation of their representative Hero’s Journey stage. The focus here is on Wiesler’s Journey. I encourage you to also look at this story through Dreyman’s journey, through his eyes and his actions.
Note that in Act IIA and IIB, I’ve emphasized two Ordeals. Since Wiesler travels a physical and emotional Journey, he experiences two central ordeals, one for each Journey. Each Ordeal brings a Reward but these Rewards collide, as Wiesler must choose between his loyalty to country, and his allegiance to his new friends, Dreyman and Christa-Maria.
Act I: The Journey‘s Separation
‘Will Captain Wiesler reveal Dreyman as an enemy of Socialism?’
Captain Wiesler serves as a loyal agent of the Stasi, determined to reveal the enemies of Socialism. (Ordinary World)
A former classmate and now head of the Culture Department at the State Security, Grubitz assigns Wiesler to monitor playwright Georg Dreyman, and his girlfriend-leading lady Christa-Maria. (Call to Adventure)
Wiesler’s team bugs Dreyman’s flat (Ordinary World), and he inhabits the attic for monitoring. (I see this sequence as another reflection of Wiesler’s Ordinary World. The unexpected problem that disrupts Wiesler’s Ordinary World arrives with the mysterious car. )
Wiesler observes a mysterious car drop Christa-Maria off at Dreyman’s flat, and Wiesler notes the license number. (Call to Adventure)
Wiesler listens to Dreyman’s birthday party, and observes that Dreyman does not speak up against the GDR. Later that night, Dreyman opens his gift from Jerska, piano music titled ‘Sonata for a Good Man. ‘He and Christa-Maria make love. (This rich sequence weaves several stages. Notably, it is a Refusal of his Call to reveal Dreyman as an enemy. But it’s also a Meeting of the Mentor, an invitation for Wiesler to be influenced by Dreyman’s world and his love shared with Christa-Maria. )
Grubitz informs Wiesler that the mysterious car belongs to Minister Hempf. And Grubitz warns Wiesler to strike this information from the record, for they are not allowed to monitor fellow members. (This Meeting of the Mentor is a significant Plot Point that initiates Wiesler’s Crossing of the Threshold. Wiesler realizes that he’s being used by Hempf to get rid of a rival, and Wiesler questions his loyalty. )
Wiesler completes the Crossing of the Threshold when he rings the doorbell, prompting Dreyman to discover Christa-Maria emerging from Hempf’s car. (This signals a moment of decision and action on the part of Wiesler. He’s longer a passive observer, but an active participant in the lives of Dreyman and Christa-Maria. )
Act IIA: The Journey‘s Descent
‘Will Wiesler help save the relationship between Dreyman and Christa-Maria?’
Wiesler’s Crossing of the Threshold has unsettled Wiesler’s personal world and his professional loyalty. His observations and actions are beginning to affect him and his world; these series of events Test his transformation.
Having observed Dreyman’s and Christa-Maria’s night of pain and shame, Wiesler’s doesn’t know how to feel and finds comfort with a prostitute. (Test)
Later, Wiesler enters Dreyman’s flat and takes his Brecht book, bringing this literature and art into his own apartment. (Test)
Hidden in the attic, Wiesler listens to Dreyman’s phone call announcing the suicide of Jerska. Dreyman mourns his friend’s death by playing the ‘Sonata for a Good Man’. Wiesler listens and cries. (Approach to the Inmost Cave)
When a boy at an elevator confesses his father’s disdain of the Stasi, Wiesler stops himself from demanding the father’s name. (Test)
With growing pressure from Hempf, Grubitz pushes Wiesler to ‘find something’ on Dreyman. Grubitz warns Wiesler of a rendezvous planned between Hempf and Christa-Maria that will jeopardize her relationship with Dreyman. (Approach to the Inmost Cave)
The Story’s First Ordeal works as a ‘death’ that affects several characters and their goals. Mourning Jerska’s death, Dreyman fears he’s lost his passion for writing. (An Ordeal)Christa-Maria prepares to leave Dreyman to ‘see a classmate’. Dreyman speaks his suspicions that she is going to sleep with Hempf. Dreyman asks her to trust herself as an artist, and to stay. But Christa-Maria questions both of their ‘needs’ for Hempf and the system he represents. She may sleep with Hempf for her art, but as the GDR’s favorite playwright, hasn’t Dreyman been sleeping with the system as well?Wiesler observes this Ordeal – a ‘death’ of their relationship, of their art, and of their allegiance to the system. Wiesler is interrupted by his surveillance replacement before knowing the outcome of this Ordeal. But Wiesler can’t simply walk away from these lives, and slips into a nearby tavern where he has an accidental encounter with Christa-Maria. Boldly Wiesler complements her as a great artist. She thanks Wiesler, telling him that he is ‘a good man. ‘Wiesler’s actions prompt Christa-Maria to rush back to Dreyman. The celebration of their love also gives Dreyman renewed strength as a writer. (The Resurrection of the Ordeal)
Act IIB: The Journey‘s Initiation
‘Will Wiesler protect his job and reveal Dreyman’s disloyalty?’
The primary Reward earned from the First Ordeal is Dreyman’s renewed passion for his writing. But his writing is now directed against the system that has destroyed his friend, Jerska, and threatened to destroy Christa-Maria. Dreyman prepares to write an essay revealing that the GDR has been hiding statistics of the high rate of suicide, especially amongst the artists.
This is also the Reward that Wiesler has been seeking to confirm his initial goal: to reveal Dreyman’s disloyalty.
Dreyman brings his friends back to his flat to make their plans. He assures them that his flat isn’t bugged. They Test his theory speaking openly about secretly bringing a relative across the border. Wiesler prepares to call the Border Agent, but doesn’t go through with it. (Wiesler’s monitoring Dreyman’s ongoing plot Tests the Stasi agent’s two conflicting goals: to reveal Dreyman as traitor; and to protect Dreyman as artist – to help him become the ‘good man’ that Jerska had hoped Dreyman would become. )
Wiesler’s transformation as a ‘good man’ is rebuffed when he discovers that the person he helped cross the border was the editor of Der Spiegel. Furthermore, Dreyman’s arrogant shouting in defiance of the system pushes Wiesler to compile the evidence for Grubitz. (Approach to the Inmost Cave)
Wiesler meets with Grubitz where his two conflicting goals collide head-on. Holding his sealed report in his hand, Wiesler listens to Grubitz praise their interrogation system that successfully destroys the artist. Witnessing his mentor’s arrogance, Wiesler keeps the evidence and requests that they step down their operations against Dreyman. (The Second Ordeal)
Wiesler’s action allows Dreyman to complete the anti-GDR article, which is published in Der Spiegel. Dreyman and Christa-Maria make love, while Hempf sulks without a bedmate. But these Rewards threaten Wiesler’s career; Grubitz begins to question Wiesler’s loyalty.
With pressure from Hempf to destroy Christa-Maria’s theatrical career, Grubitz interrogates her and forces Christa-Maria to name Dreyman as the author of the Der Spiegel article. Monitoring from the attic, Wiesler listens to the search of Dreyman’s flat. He now knows that Grubitz is suspicious of Wiesler, but Wiesler’s relieved when the search team fails to find Dreyman’s typewriter. Grubitz pressures Wiesler to interrogate Christa-Maria, and prove that he is still on the ‘right side’. Wiesler faces Christa-Maria and threatens to destroy her art and her ‘life’ unless she can reveal the location of the typewriter. She gives up the location, but Wiesler defies Grubitz and returns to Dreyman’s apartment to take the evidence. Christa-Maria’s revelation is the story’s Plot Point or moment of greatest despair – and it initiates the Road Back sequence.
Act III: The Journey‘ Return
‘Will Wiesler recognize himself as a Good Man?’
The Road Back continues at Dreyman’ flat. As Dreyman arrives, Wiesler slips away with the typewriter. Armed with his search team, Grubitz personally uncovers the hiding place, but it’ empty. During this ‘death’ moment, Dreyman confirms Christa-Maria’ deception. And she realizes that she has lost love and life. Wiesler witnesses her tragic exit.
Without the damning evidence of the typewriter, and with the death of Christa-Maria, Grubitz closes the investigation against Dreyman. But Grubitz makes Wiesler suffer for his sacrifice, and demotes him to years of service steaming open envelopes.
This Road Back sequence is a Resurrection for Wiesler’ Journey to do the right thing, and become a ‘good man’. But this doesn’t complete his transformation, and his Journey. He has sacrificed his career to protect Dreyman, and now recognizes how the system destroys its people. Wiesler’ Resurrection will be complete when he’ honored for his sacrifice, and receives the assurance that indeed he is a ‘good man’. That assurance comes from Dreyman who takes over the Journey in Act III.
Christa-Maria’ death and the fall of the Berlin Wall have silenced Dreyman’ voice as a playwright. After an encounter with Hempf, Dreyman confirms that his flat was wired. He investigates the agent in charge of the surveillance and discovers that agent ‘HGW XX/7′ was his protector. Dreyman and Wiesler have now switched positions within the story’ journey. Dreyman observes his ‘guardian angel’ from a distance and finally writes his ‘report’ – a book celebrating Wiesler’ sacrifice. This Resurrection sequence restores Dreyman’ faith in humanity, his passion to write, and elevates Wiesler’ life to a work of art.
Delivering mail, Wiesler passes a store window and discovers the display of Dreyman’ Elixir ‘Sonata for a Good Man. ‘Wiesler reads the dedication, and purchases the gift. ‘It’ for me. ‘ (Return with the Elixir)
Stuart Voytilla is a writer and producer, known for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (2002), The Death of Poe (2006) and The Sorcerer of Stonehenge School (2005).
1 thought on “Structure: The Lives of Others”
Great essay. I have watched the movie several times and get the basic gist of it, but you mentioned several things I had not completely understood (e.g. sealed evidence about to be turned in).
One small issue: I don’t think Wiesler is delivering mail in the end. He is delivering advertising leaflets. A more menial job. (Note, how he doesn’t have to sort or give different amounts of letters; note the lack of uniform.) I know how you want to show the justaposition of opening letters versus delivering them, but I just don’t think facts are with you.