“I’m your audience,” Ulrich M¼he confesses to an actress in a bar somewhere in the middle of The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen), and he means it in two ways: one, he has seen her perform on the stage but two, he is a member of the Stasi, the secret police arm of the East German government whose stated goal is “to know everything”, and he has been keeping her and her playwright boyfriend under surveillance for some time. The Lives of Others is concerned with three things: ostensibly and obviously it tackles the effects of government oppression, specifically on the lives of artists, but on a subtler level it also addresses the transformative power of art and how our ordinary lives can be interpreted as narrative.
Sebastian Koch is a writer of plays, loyal, perhaps to a fault (at least according to some of the company he keeps) to the ideals of socialism and the German Democratic Republic. “He’s our only non-subversive writer,” a government minister remarks, one night, to M¼he while watching a performance of his latest play. But Koch has some questionable friends, and M¼he recommends they monitor him, on the basis that his loyalty is, counterintuitively, more suspicious than it is reassuring. M¼he’s recommendations are acted upon, it turns out, because a superior official is having an affair with Koch’s aforementioned girlfriend, Martina Gedeck, and he wants to muster up some dirt with which to dispose of his romantic rival. Because he discovers that the Stasi is trying to steal his woman, and because of the death of a director friend, driven to suicide by his inability to work in GDR due to government blacklisting, Koch is actually turned into a subversive when he wasn’t much of one before; it’s a powerful reminder, in the age of the Iraq War, that sometimes in trying to overcome our perceived enemies we actually wind up creating them.
The Lives of Others, filmed with cool precision to match the exacting equability of the Stasi, is more than just a tapping-into of the modernly universal fear of surveillance, which unfortunately didn’t end with the fall of the Berlin Wall; it has an added dimension, and a much more interesting one at that, that deals with spectatorship and the nature of vicarious experience. M¼he is often cut to in his surveillance bunker, keeping an ear on the spied-upon couple as he transforms into a voyeur, in a sense becoming a representative of the audience, by proxy. When M¼he, who plays his scenes brilliantly, with the slightest fluttering of longing in his otherwise steely visage, changes political sides midway through the film, becoming an anonymous accomplice to Koch & Co.’s shady dealings, it’s possible to ascribe several motivations: clearly, he’s undergoing an awakening of conscience, evidenced by a scene in which he lets a loose-lipped little child off the hook, but in equal measure he’s addicted to the show of Koch’s life, fascinated by its passion and intimacies. Like a soap opera addict, he doesn’t want his favorite show to end, as he’s fallen for the characters in a very personal way, much like the average spectator might with the average narrative. (At one point, M¼he is reading a report of Koch’s activities during his off-shift; the report reads, and looks, like a set of stage directions.)
The source of his political awakening is a romantic/artistic awakening; he secretly steals Koch’s Brecht book to read, is brought to tears by Koch’s playing of a Beethoven sonata, and ultimately, most importantly, he is led to betray his government for the sake of protecting what he sees as two deeply sympathetic characters. As such, The Lives of Others is not so much a condemnation of oppressive government (in fact, it suggests that freedom is actually art’s enemy, that art thrives, in a burning sort of way, under the threat of oppression), but a celebration of the sacrifice and fortitude required to create, and the power of art to change the world.