The film Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others), Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s debut as screenwriter and director, was previewed in Berlin on March 15, 2006, and won a multitude of awards both in Germany and internationally, including the Oscar, BAFTA and César for Best Foreign Language Film in 2007.
The Lives of Others is set in East Berlin, five years before the fall of the Wall, and shows the oppressive espionage and terrifying control exercised by the socialist government, especially over intellectuals and artists, through the Stasi -the communist secret police-.
The film does an excellent job of capturing this oppressive and suffocating atmosphere, telling us the story of Gerd Wiesler, played by Ulrich Müche -who sadly passed away shortly after the release of this film-, a meticulous and relentless Stasi spy, who goes from being an idealistic and loyal defender of the Communist Party to becoming a “good man.”
According to Florian Henckel in an interview for The New York Times, the idea for The Lives of Others came to him while listening to Beethoven’s Appassionata, recalling a conversation Lenin had with Maksim Gorki, in which he told him that his favorite song was precisely the Appassionata, but that he could not listen to it because “it makes me want to say nice and stupid things, and pat on the head the people who, living in this dirty hell, can create so much beauty”, when what he had to do for his socialist revolution to triumph was to “hit those heads without mercy.”
The film’s director said he imagined Lenin listening to the Appassionata and that, moved by it, he would not have succeeded in making the revolution triumph, so that the Soviet Union would never have existed. “Suddenly the image came into my head of a person sitting in a dreary room with headphones on his head, listening to what he assumes to be the enemy of the state, and the enemy of his ideas, and what he is really listening to is beautiful music that moves him,” Henckel said.
“I sat down and in a couple of hours I had written the treatment,” said the screenwriter and director, who starts from this simple, but powerful idea, of a spy with headphones listening to his victim playing the Sonata for a Good Man on the piano, and ends up moved, in such a way, that he stops observing the life of his enemy and goes on to live it and feel it, to put himself in his place and stop seeing him as an enemy, and even decides to help him, disenchanted and disgusted by the mission he has been assigned.
The mission he has to fulfill is to keep an eye on the playwright Georg Dreyman (played by Sebastian Koch), a writer apparently loyal to the regime, but whom the Minister of Culture wants to take away his girlfriend, a beautiful actress he has become infatuated with.
The minister wants to exploit Georg Dreyman’s friendship with a theater director defenestrated by the government, to try to discover some kind of subversive activity with which to imprison him, and thus have a free hand with his girlfriend.
When Dreyman learns that his friend is committing suicide because he cannot work due to being on a blacklist, he plays this sonata on the piano and it is when the spy decides to become a “good man” and help him, despite the serious risk he would run in case of being discovered.
There is a scene in The Lives of Others applicable to the present day. In a conversation they had about his disgraced friend, the minister told Georg Dreyman – with great cynicism and hypocrisy – that he, unlike his friend, “knows that the party needs artists, but that the artists need the party even more.” This shows that under socialism there is no artistic freedom of any kind, and culture is a mere propaganda tool of the rulers.
Dreyman tries to break a lance for his friend claiming that he went too far in his words, but that it was a simple mistake and he is still a loyal supporter of socialism and an excellent director who does not deserve to be blacklisted, to which the minister replies in a threatening way, “who talks about a blacklist? Such things do not exist! You should choose your words more carefully!”.
Or we’ll blacklist you, he added. This situation of the world of culture under constant political threat, of which we were warned 15 years ago in the film about what was happening up to 30 years ago in East Germany, is still of utmost relevance in 2021.
The lives of others, lessons for today
Today we live under the so-called cancel culture. Especially the world of culture and entertainment, practically monopolized by the left, doesn’t tolerate opinions that differ from progressive and socialist thinking. This revisionism not only affects fictional characters such as Pepé Le Pew or The Muppets, but also real people such as Gina Carano, Tim Allen, Jon Dolmayan or Winston Marshall, these being just a few examples of a multitude of situations that, in essence, are similar to those in the film The Lives of Others.
It is estimated that the Stasi had 91,000 officials and almost 200,000 unofficial informants who monitored the political activity of the citizens of the German Democratic Republic with the intention of detecting -and stopping- subversive or counterrevolutionary behavior. The eagerness of the socialist government to control even thoughts generated a terrible atmosphere of paranoia, in which friends, colleagues, husbands, wives and relatives often spied on and denounced each other.
It is estimated that these last civilian whistleblowers numbered 300,000 people, out of a population of only 16 million inhabitants. The documents containing the whistleblowers’ information are estimated to have amounted to 33 million pages.
These numbers, impressive for the technology of the time, are child’s play compared to the volume of information currently handled by Big Tech and which, by the looks of it, they don’t have many qualms about using to impose their political agenda.
Perhaps it is time to re-watch The Lives of Others, listen to his Sonata for a Good Man, and rethink whether this climate of censorship, denunciation and hunting of dissidents that social networks facilitate and encourage, forcing us to think and behave as the left considers that “good people” should do, far from making us better, is leading us towards a sick society, like that of the dark times of the Stasi in East Germany.