‘The Lives of Others’

[While other blogs deal more with technology and education, this post reviews a film]

Apparently, taking an interest in East Germany or the Deutsche Demokratische Republik (DDR) as was (1949-1990) is now ‘cool’ [1], at least in UK.  We are getting a wave of books and films and some of them are offering a more balanced, even nostalgic, view as compared to the simplistic idea that everything in the DDR was either dull or bad. This led me to see again how the DDR has been represented post unification and I caught up with several films [3] and the included the celebrated 2006 film ‘The Lives of Others’ (Das Leben der Anderen).

Read more: ‘The Lives of Others’

‘The Lives of Others’ is a film about surveillance in the DDR in the years leading up to the fall of the Berlin wall and the reunification of Germany within a single democratic, mixed economy or, if you prefer, capitalist system.  The film is strong on atmosphere rather than fast paced action but there is a plot. [2] 

It is 1984 and Stasi (that is the East German secret police) functionary Gerd Wiesler, is ordered to spy on the playwright Georg Dreyman. Accordingly he sets up hidden bugs and other equipment looking for signs of disloyalty to the DDR.  

Wiesler becomes obsessed by Dreyman and the relationship he has with his lover Christa-Maria Sieland.  Wiesler does not get much evidence of disloyalty through his eavesdropping but at one stage he overhears Dreyman playing a piano sonata from manuscript given to him by his friend Albert Jerska.  Jerska was seen as unreliable by the authorities and was unable to work in the arts. In despair, he later commits suicide. This leads Dreyman himself into a quiet dissidence and he has an anonymous article, critical of the regime, smuggled to Der Spiegel, a West German weekly magazine. When Dreyman’s article is published, the authorities try to track down the author. This should be relatively easy as they are able to trace every typewriter and who owns it by the very small differences in lettering that each typewriter makes. However, this time they do not succeed as the article was written using an unregistered machine. Nonetheless, the authorities suspect Dreyman and they pressurise Sieland into admitting this and to reveal where in the flat the typewriter was hidden. The police move in but they find the typewriter is not there. Unexpectedly, Wiesler has himself been disloyal and removed the machine before the police arrive in order to protect Dreyman.  Unaware of this, Sieland runs out of the flat and into the path of a lorry. She dies in Dreyman’s arms.

Wiesler is suspected by his superiors but nothing is proved. Nonetheless, he spends the rest of his career in a dead-end job for unreliable agents, but this turns out to be for a relatively short time as the DDR ceases to exist. 

Two years after the Berlin wall has fallen, Wielser is working as a postman in a unified Berlin. As a coda to the film he passes a a book shop window display about Dreyman’s new novel, ‘Sonate vom Guten Menschen’ – the same title as the Sonata Drayman had played for Sieland which Wiesler had overheard. He enters the bookstore and opens a copy of the book, discovering that it is dedicated to him or at least his Stasi code: ‘To HGW XX/7 in gratitude’. 

It is moody film and East Germany is presented as a drab society marked by extremes levels of surveillance and paranoia, you were always at risk of saying the wrong thing and even if you are doing the watching someone is watching you. A key recurring idea behind the film is the humanising potential of the arts – when Dreyman plays his sonata he comments that anyone who has heard this music, ‘I mean really heard it’, cannot be a bad person.  Dreyman adds that Lenin himself loved Beethoven’s Appassionata but could not listen to it as much as he would have liked as he would be corrupted by its romance and would not have been able to ‘make the revolution’.

The clip below shows this scene (the picture quality is way below what we see on the film itself).

Well, really listening to the music, seems to mark a change in Wiesler and explains his desire to save Dreyman. Or perhaps it is not so much the music it could equally be the book of poems by Brecht he has taken from Dreyman’s house or more likely it is the kindness and respect shown by Drayman to Sieland, and vice versa, that touches him. This relationship contrasts so markedly with his own sad interactions with a sex worker in an anonymous hotel. Wiesler is also thrown off balance by his knowledge that the minister of culture, Bruno Hempf, a creep of the first order, has set up this surveillance of Dreyman not so much to protect state security but because he (Hempf) wants ownership of Sieland, over whom he has some power.

You can read many things in to the film but at the time it was seen by some as a recalibration of perspective on DDR at a time of growing nostalgia for the east. This nostalgia (‘Ostalgie’) was based on some resentment in both west (for the huge costs of reunification) and the east (for the disorientation and the feeling of being swamped and patronised by its much richer and larger ex-rival). Ostalgie was expressed in the film ‘Goodbye Lenin’ in which a mother, who is also a party member, falls into a coma at the time of the fall of the Berlin wall. When she comes round her children resolve to conceal the collapse of the DDR from her: the DDR was just as it ever was. The film is funny and sad. You cannot call it an apology for the DDR system but it does a least remind us that there were people acting in good faith to make the country work.  In contrast, in ‘The Lives of Others’ there is one functionary (Sieland) who ended up acting according to conscience but that involved his outright rejection of the system.  Overall, DDR is presented in ‘The Lives of Others’ as irredeemable and the Minister of Culture, in particular, is presented as louche and corrupt [4]. 

If there is a re-calibration on what we think in UK about the DDR at the time of writing I offer two thoughts. First, the idea of a surveillance society has become normalised when so much of what we do online is monitored. The historic example of DDR does not shock us today as much as it did in the past. Second, there was a social system in DDR which catered for the health and welfare of citizens which was very different from many people’s experiences of a declining public sector today, at least in UK. But this cannot excuse the repression that went on and those who were victims of the political system. 


[1] See for example Hoyer, K. (2023) From rampaging teens to female assassins: why has East German culture become so cool? Guardian, Wednesday, 10 May 2023. Hoyer’s own book is: Hoyer, K. (2023) Beyond the Wall: East Germany, 1949-1990.  London: Allen Lane.  

[2] You can get a fuller description of the film on Wikipedia and there are several in-depth and broadly positive reviews including Roger Ebert (2007) ‘A bug in his ear’, Roger Ebert.com, 20 September [Online] https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/the-lives-of-others-2007-1

[3] These included ‘Barbara’ a rather equivocal film about a doctor who chooses to stay in East Germany despite the opportunity to go to the west and ‘The Legend of Rita’ (Die Stille nach dem Schuß) which concerns an urban guerrilla from west Germany who escapes to the East and defends the system in her interactions with her sceptical fellow workers and ex-colleague. More familiar are the popular spy series ‘Deutschland 83’ and ‘Deustchland 89’ (there is also a more recent thriller ‘Kleo’). There is also a mass of documentary material and television dramas from the DDR posted to the internet, as well as several propaganda films from both East and West as well. Wikipedia and other sources offer a list of films set in the DDR, very few produced in DDR itself (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Films_set_in_East_Germany).

[4] If you want to pursue the question of corruption in DDR one source is Steiner, A. and Petrak-Jones, K. (2017) Corruption in an Anticorruption State? East Germany under Communist Rule’, in R. Kroeze et al. (eds), Anti-corruption in History: From Antiquity to the Modern Era. Oxford: Oxford Academic.