Love in the Time of Socialism: Negotiating the Personal and the Social in Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s The Lives of Others




surveillance, stasi, privacy, society, the lives of others, east germany

How to Cite

Grant-Frost, R. (2011). Love in the Time of Socialism: Negotiating the Personal and the Social in Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s <i>The Lives of Others</i>. M/C Journal, 15(1).
Vol. 15 No. 1 (2012): suspicion
Published 2011-09-13

After grossing more than $80 million at the international box office and winning the 2007 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, the international success of Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s 2006 film The Lives of Others has popularised the word “Stasi” as a “default global synonym” for the terrors associated with surveillance (Garton Ash). Just as representations of Nazism have become inextricably entwined with a specific kind of authoritarian, murderous dictatorship, Garton Ash argues that so too the Stasi and its agents have come to stand in for a certain kind of authoritarian dictatorship in the popular imagination, whose consequences aren’t necessarily as physically harmful as those of National Socialism, but are, instead, dependent on strategies encompassing surveillance, control, and coercion to achieve their objectives.

Surveillance societies, such as the former German Democratic Republic, have long been settings for both influential and popular fictions. Social theory has also been illuminated by some of these fictions, with theorists such as Haggerty and Ericson claiming that surveillance models originating in the work of Jeremy Bentham and George Orwell are central to conceptualising and understanding surveillance practices, as well as social attitudes towards them. Orwell’s terminology in particular and his ideas relating to “Thought Police,” “Big Brother,” “Room 101,” “Newspeak,” and others, have entered into popular discourse and, to a large extent, have become synonymous with the idea of surveillance itself. Even the adjective “Orwellian” has come to be associated with totalitarian regimes of absolute control, so much so that “when a totalitarian setup, whether in fact or in fantasy ... is called ‘Orwellian,’ it is as if George Orwell had helped to create it instead of helping to dispel its euphemistic thrall” (James 72).

As sociologist David Lyon notes: “much surveillance theory is dystopian” (201). And while the fear, helplessness, and emotional experiences of living under the suspicion and scrutiny of security services such as Von Donnersmarck’s Stasi or Orwell’s Party are necessarily muted by theory, it is often through fictions such as The Lives of Others and Nineteen Eighty-Four that these can be fully expressed. In the case of The Lives of Others and Nineteen Eighty-Four, both use central love stories to express the affective experiences associated with constant surveillance and use these as a way of contrasting and critiquing the way in which surveillance, power, and control operate in both settings. Like many other texts which represent surveillance societies, both fictions present a bleak picture, with the surveillance undertaken by the Party or Stasi being framed as a deindividualising or depersonifying social force which eliminates privacy, compromises trust, and blurs the distinction between the self and the state, the personal and the social, the individual and the ideology.

This brings me to the purpose of this paper, which is concerned with two things: firstly, it will discuss these oppositions alongside the role of social surveillance and private lives in Von Donnersmarck’s film. The existing scholarly work on The Lives of Others tends to focus on its historical setting—the former East Germany—and, consequently, emphasises its generic status as a “political thriller,” “fierce and gloomy historical drama” full of “psychological terror,” and so on. Nevertheless, this overstates the film’s social milieu at the expense of the personal drama which drives the narrative—the film is underpinned by multiple overlapping love stories—so my focus is more concerned with highlighting the latter, rather than the former. I am not going to attempt to provide any sort of a comparative case study between the film’s representation of the Stasi and the historical realities upon which it is based, for example. Secondly, much has been made of the transformation of the character Gerd Wiesler, who shifts from “a loyal Stasi officer with an unswervingly grim demeanour” into “a good man” with a conscience—to borrow from Von Donnersmarck’s commentary. I will conclude by briefly addressing this transformation with reference to surveillance and its place within the film’s narrative.

The Lives of Others is a film which, like Nineteen Eighty-Four, carries the signifiers of a very specific kind of surveillance. Set in the former German Democratic Republic in the year 1984—perhaps a self-conscious reference to Orwell—the film is concerned with the playwright Georg Dreyman (played by Sebastian Koch), “the only nonsubversive writer who is still read in the West”; his girlfriend, the actress Christa-Maria Sieland (played by Martina Gedeck); and the Stasi Captain Wiesler (played by Ulrich Mühe). In his capacity as expert interrogator and security agent, Wiesler is assigned to spy on Dreyman and Sieland because they are suspected of being disloyal, and as a playwright and actress—and thus, persons of social, intellectual, and cultural influence—this will never do. Accordingly, Dreyman and Sieland’s apartment is bugged and the pair is constantly surveilled. Their home, previously a space of relative privacy, becomes the prime site for this surveillance, forcing their “private or ‘personal life’”—which is understood as “the special preserve of intimacy, affection, trust and elective affinity”—into “the larger world of impersonal and instrumental [social] relations” governed by the East German state (Weintraub and Kumar xiii).

The surveillance in the film is a “creature of its social context,” to borrow James Rule’s terminology (300). Rule argued that all systems of surveillance are “distinctive of certain social orders” and that their “continued growth is closely tied to other changes in their social structural contexts” (300). This is certainly true of the surveillance in The Lives of Others, which is characterised by effectiveness through totality, rather than technological sophistication. Broadly speaking, surveillance in the former East Germany was top-down and hierarchical and connected with the maintenance of the ruling party’s power. Metaphors abound when describing the Stasi’s surveillance network—it was an “octopus,” a “multi-headed hydra,” a beast of gargantuan size at the very heart of the East German Party-State (Childs and Popplewell xiii). Needless to say, the Stasi was big. Since Die Wende, especially, much has been made of the enormity of the Stasi’s bureaucracy and its capacity to “intrude.” Between 1950 and 1989 it employed 274,000 people in an official capacity and, after the collapse of the East German regime anywhere up to 500,000 East German Inoffizielle Mitarbeiter—Unofficial Collaborators: ordinary citizens from the East German state who had been coerced into spying on friends or family members, or had volunteered their services—had been identified (Koehler 8). This equated to approximately one Stasi officer, informer or collaborator per 6.5 East German citizens (Koehler 9). Put in perspective, there was one KGB agent per 5,800 citizens in the Soviet Union, while the Gestapo—often held up as the ultimate example of the abuses and evils inherent in many secret police forces—had one officer for every 2,000 Germans (Koehler 9).

And it is this hydra, this octopus that Dreyman and Sieland encounter in The Lives of Others. Led by Wiesler and driven by suspicion, the Stasi listens in on their conversations, follows the couple clandestinely, and gathers information which may reveal “politically incorrect behaviour” (Rainer and Siedler 251). The reach of the Stasi’s surveillance network and its capacity to collect information is demonstrated through a variety of means—beginning with the interrogation scene during the film’s opening where the scent of a dissident is stored in a jar for later use, to the final coercion in which Sieland becomes an IM. The Stasi in the film consistently demonstrates an uncanny ability to know: to gather information through surveillance, and to use this surveillance to demonstrate and secure its power. As Rule points out: “the ability of any system of surveillance to control and shape the behaviour of ... [those under surveillance] depends very much on the certainty with which it manages to bring information generated in one social and temporal setting to bear elsewhere” (302). Intense “surveillance and potent mechanisms of control are useless” if those under surveillance can simply hide behind closed doors or escape over a wall—so the “system must arrange its boundaries so that both its surveillance and control activities cover a sufficiently broad area” to prevent escape through movement (Rule 303–304).  In a total surveillance society such as the one seen in The Lives of Others, there is no “escape” from the Stasi other than death—suicide—which defines many of the film’s key turning points. The surveillance undertaken by the Stasi may be stored in jars in some cases; however, it can also be retrieved to confirm suspicions, to coerce and control, and, ultimately, to further the objectives of the Party State.

Despite the Stasi’s best attempts, however, Dreyman is consistently loyal—he believes in the principles of socialism and, to quote Wiesler’s superior Grubitz (played by Ulrich Tukur), he “thinks East Germany is the fairest land of them all.” Eventually it is revealed that the real reason for the surveillance is not about suspected disloyalty to the state, but a personal vendetta by the Party’s Minister for Culture, Bruno Hempf (played by Thomas Thieme), who wants Sieland for himself and is using his influence within the Stasi to bring Dreyman down. The use of surveillance for personal gain, rather than for social “good” proves too much for Wiesler who undergoes a “psychological and political transformation” and begins to empathise with the subjects of his investigation (Diamond 811). Dreyman undergoes a similar transformation after the suicide of his mentor and friend Albert Jerska (played by Volkmar Kleinert)—a theatre director whose life was made meaningless after he was blacklisted by the Stasi.

This brings me back to the question of the personal and the social, which forms the fundamental tension within the film and is the basis of this paper. Historically, notions of “public” and “private,” “social” and “personal”—as understood in state-socialist societies such as the former East Germany—revolved around “the victimised ‘us’ and the newly powerful ‘them’ who ruled the state” (Gal 87). Nevertheless, the distinction between the personal and the social—or public and private—has long been a social organising principle and, as a result, has acted as a springboard into “many key issues of social and political analysis, of moral and political debate, and of ordering everyday life” (Weintraub and Kumar 1). The idea of “privacy”—which is often conceptualised simplistically as a “uni-dimensional, rigidly dichotomous and absolute, fixed and universal concept” (Marx 157)—is used as a shield against any number of perceived political, social, or moral infringements, including surveillance, and can be said to be organised around the idea of visibility, where “private” encompasses that which is “able and / or entitled to be kept hidden, sheltered or withdrawn from others” (Weintraub and Kumar 6).  The private is thus connected with a life free of surveillance and scrutiny, where people have a reprieve from monitored social relations and the collective self. Privacy is “fundamentally rooted” in a personal life “delineated by private space” without surveillance, and is interlinked with the idea of a “society of strangers,” where strangers are, by definition, individuals who have been denied access to our personal lives and private spaces (Lyon 21). The act of disclosure and the provision of access to our personal affairs is thus regarded as a voluntary gesture of faith and trust—an invitation into the private, which makes our lives—the lives of strangers, the lives of “others”—familiar and knowable.

In The Lives of Others it is Dreyman and Sieland who, because of the personal relationship they have maintained in the relative privacy of their apartment, are the “strangers” or “others” the Stasi wants to make knowable. When Wiesler first encounters the couple at the premiere of Dreyman’s play—the tellingly named The Faces of Love—he seems disturbed by the affection they share for one another and for their fellow artists. Later, it is a brief moment of intimacy between Dreyman and Sieland that motivates Wiesler into overseeing the surveillance himself—a decision that contributes to his eventual transformation. Wiesler is disturbed by Dreyman and Sieland’s relationship because it demonstrates personal loyalties born out of private emotions which exist beyond the gaze of the Stasi and, thus, beyond the control of the state. In Wiesler’s world the only true love is social love—the impersonal love of the state—and anything resembling the romantic or the personal is not only unfamiliar, but suspicious and potentially subversive. In Von Donnersmarck’s words, Wiesler has shut out his humanity to adhere to a principle, which he values above and beyond all else. His suspicion of Dreyman and Sieland thus exemplifies how the experience and interpretation of personal emotions is dependent, in part, on social and cultural circumstances. For Wiesler, private emotions are dangerous, unknowable, and unfamiliar. They belong to a realm “which places extraordinary emphasis on the concept of individuality and individual self-identity” in “a society which distinguishes more or less plainly between public positions and personal roles; ... and, perhaps most importantly, [they belong to] a society that grants a high degree of mobility and flexibility in relationships in general, [and] places personal choice at the core of mating and marriage rituals ...” (Solomon xxviii). A society, in other words, quite unlike the one in The Lives of Others. By monitoring the personal lives of Dreyman and Sieland, the Stasi thus collapses the distinction between the personal and the social, the private and the public. Surveillance transforms personal emotions into public information, and it is this information which is later manipulated for the social “good” and at the expense of Dreyman and Sieland’s personal lives. In The Lives of Others there is no separation between the personal and the social, the public and the private—there is only the Party and there is only the Stasi.

I want to conclude by briefly discussing the transformation of Wiesler, which is emblematic of the film’s central message about the “capacity of human beings for goodness, [love], compassion and change” (Diamond 812–13). Von Donnersmarck makes this message clear in one of the film’s early scenes, where, at the opening of his play The Faces of Love, Dreyman appeals to Minister Hempf about Jerska’s blacklisting, suggesting that Jerska is remorseful and has changed. Hempf tells Dreyman: “That’s what we all love about your plays ... the idea that people can change. People don’t change.” Hempf is suggesting, of course, that there is no “normalising gaze” in the East German state; that there is only suspicion, discrimination and exclusion. Once you have been identified as “abnormal,” “subversive” or “an enemy” by the Stasi’s surveillance, you can never remove yourself from the category of suspicion—change is impossible. But Wiesler and Dreyman do change, however unlikely Wiesler’s transformation may be. While the film’s style suggest the men are opposites—Dreyman dresses like a chic (West) German intellectual in tweed jackets and horn-rimmed glasses, while Wiesler gets around in stiff Stasi uniforms and grey nylon tracksuits; Dreyman’s home reflects his status as a man of culture and taste, with literature, art, and music dominating the bohemian aesthetic, while Wiesler’s home is cold, empty, characterless, and generic; Dreyman shares a personal life with Sieland, while Wiesler is visited by a prostitute who services all the Stasi men in his building “on a tight schedule”  and so on—they share a fundamental similarity: they both believe in socialism, in the East German state, and the utopian ideals that are now obscured under layers of bureaucracy, surveillance, corruption, and suspicion (Diamond 815).

Nevertheless, after discovering that Sieland is being forced into sexual encounters with party Minister Hempf, the instigator of the surveillance, Wiesler begins to identify with the couple, and, for the first time, breaches the boundary between surveillance and interference, between social observation and personal intervention. After seeing the Minister’s car pull up with Sieland inside, Wiesler uses his surveillance technologies to alert Dreyman to her return—he rings the couple’s doorbell whilst muttering, “Time for some bitter truths.” Later, after Sieland showers and collapses “in mute despair,” Dreyman cradles her in his arms, after which the film cuts to a shot of Wiesler still listening, but mirroring their body language (Diamond 817). This is the moment at which the film makes clear that Wiesler’s role has shifted from social monitoring to something more personal—he has developed an emotional investment in the surveillance he is conducting and is identifying and empathising with the subjects of his surveillance. Eventually this goes further—he steals a copy of Brecht’s poems from their apartment and reads “Memory of Marie A.” a poem which “expresses poignant longings for a love that is both enticing and elusive” (Diamond 822).  By breaching the boundary between the social and the personal, Wiesler undergoes a complete transformation, and his continued interventions drive the narrative and dictate outcomes not only for himself, but also for Dreyman and Sieland. In shifting his role from surveillance to engagement, from observation to intervention, and from state suspicion to personal investment, Wiesler eventually, and in his own way, falls in love.

Surveillance is the defining characteristic of The Lives of Others—it is both oppressive and redemptive, sinister and salvational, an obstacle and an opening. It defines both the film’s social setting and enables and impacts on the personal relationships between characters. The Lives of Others brings home the horrors of East Germany under the Stasi—albeit in a stylised and technically accomplished fashion—by emphasising the personal and social costs associated with the corrupt, petty, and spiteful regime through human drama. The ultimate result is a film with a surveillance network that swings between care and control, observation and engagement, with Wiesler exemplifying all of these traits. And while the end result of the Stasi’s surveillance is destructive and despairing, in the words of Von Donnersmarck, it also gives characters “the ability to do the right thing, even in social conditions that seem to eradicate the very possibility of personal goodness.”


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Author Biography

Rowena Grant-Frost

Rowena Grant-Frost is a PhD student at the University of Queensland. She is currently researching the relationship between history, imagination, and setting in surveillance films.