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Culture: The Lives of Others: The Loneliness of a Spectator
Friday, 27 April 2007 Written by Henry Midgley
The Lives of Others, a debut film from Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck is about the role of the Stasi in East Germany. Focusing on the investigation of a young couple, a director and an actress, for supposed sympathies with the Western Powers, the film creates an almost Kafkaesque atmosphere around its protagonists- we know that they are doomed though they know it not, and every step they take, like a fly writhing in a net, merely emeshes them even more in the Stasi's grasp. This film therefore might be seen to be about the couple- that might be in a lesser director or writer's hands its focus.

But in truth it isn't- as my companion in viewing the film complained the characters under surveillance aren't really developed much beyond an ideal young couple, talented, beautiful and struggling between principle and ambition- there is something slightly insipid about their characterisation- that is until we realise that in reality this is a film about the Stasi and not a film about the victims of their pursuit.

The film's real and much more terrifying concentration is on the other side of the fence- upon the agents of the Stasi, the ministers of East Germany and the powers that be. It is upon the voyeuristic agents of the secret state that this film focuses and what they have to do to themselves to work within this state- and the envy that they feel for those outside it. For the film's main character is the Stasi agent who scrutinises this young couple, this man whose stare is both anonymously vacant and yet also threatening fills the film with his presence.

The first scene establishes the memes of the film with regard to the secret state. Our hero, the agent, is telling a group of students for the Stasi how to interrogate an individual- he rules out any element of conciliation based on the feelings of the interrogated, he sees such sympathy as sympathy with a pathological virus infecting the population. He lives in a world, we are made aware of ceaseless ambition, where he, a true beleiver and fanatic, is partnered by men who hold their ambition so sacred that they see position as a worthy tool to barter for anything. A minister who beleives that as he is a minister, any woman worth her salt will sleep with him despite his physical imperfections. A apparatchik who holds that truth doesn't matter- but results do. Even the writer who has made his compromise with the regime and the actress who feels she must sleep with the minister to make her career, feel the attractions of this pull.

In reality though, both the minister, the apparatchik, the agent as fanatic, the director and actress when they compromise and all the others involved betray themselves much more. What we are left with is a counterposition between the life as lived by the actress and director together- based on mutual feeling, sexual love and companionship- and the life lived within the corridors of power, a life of servility, inequality and continuous violence (whether literal rape, torture or more subtle psychological prodding- there is a moment when the apparatchik exploits his power to taunt some Stasi officers that is pure genius). These are not people- they live the lives of others- lives denuded of feeling and of emotion.

Our agent ultimately fails the test- he becomes sympathetic with the actress and director- attempts to save them- succeeds partially in doing so. His brutish stare hides a more and more sensitive soul and the film chronicles his re-awakening. At the beggining of the film he is reduced to encounters devoid of meaning with a fat and odious prostitute- he knows that something is missing and asks her to stay to provide companionship, but looking on sex as a service (like the minister does) she leaves him, knowing that he has 'had' her but is no closer to what he really wishes for. By the end of the film, he grasps in his hand a token of regard- a book dedicated to him which one can see through his stare means far more than the chance to fondle a prostitute's breasts.

The remoteness of the director and his actress-girlfriend is thus a cinematic tool to make us aware of the world as it looks to someone who has lost his feelings but envies those who have them. Besides them the Agent is merely half a human being- devoid of that which makes them human- devoid of the opportunity to live life properly and fully. So likewise are the ministers and agents of the state- at the end when the director tells the minister that he is shocked that the East Germans let men as pathetic as this minister govern them, it isn't communism he is critiquing as much as the individual that has become a corpulent monster, a psychopath in a suit. The fact that the minister can't see the point of the director's accusation merely makes the point the director wants to make- that the tragedy of communism is not merely the souls of the murdered, the people killed, but also the people alive that never lived- the agents, ministers and apparatchiks who never knew what it was to truly feel because every feeling for them, every human contact was an exchange on a path up the greasy pole.

This is a film well worth seeing- its disturbing- if you have ever had the feeling of looking from the outside on life, of seeing other people happy in fulfilled feelings and feeling distant from that happiness then this is a difficult film to watch. On the other hand it is an interesting film to watch, the world it portrays is worth analysing and redemption of the agent is at least a sign of hope. Though he is alone at the end of the film, though he is in a poor job, at least he has discovered what it is to be human- something that the minister signally has not discovered and one fears for him, never will.