The Loneliest Audience in The Lives of Others

Sony Pictures Classics

For two years in my mid-20s, I lived in a tiny garret apartment in the 18e arrondissement of Paris with the sort of haussmannien structure that makes Americans swoon: it had an antique (defunct) chimney, beautiful floor-length windows, and two mini balconies. Just looking at it, you would never guess that the space was actually a nightmarish hellscape. Originally one normal-sized apartment, a paper-thin sheet wall had been erected straight down the middle of the living room, and on the other side of that wall was Lionel. 

Our relationship as neighbors quickly went from cordiality to seething antagonism. Not all of it was his fault; he couldn’t help that every time he plugged his phone into the wall, my picture frames would rattle. But as for the rest—the slamming doors at 3 a.m., which would cause books to fall off my shelves, or the girl he brought home one night who would never, in fact, leave…that was all him. 

I gradually became obsessed, but in ways I couldn’t quite admit. I felt a wave of revulsion as I tried to write my thesis during their epic amorous sessions; I felt physically enraged as their spats turned into screaming tantrums in the middle of the night. And yet, I couldn’t help but listen—despite my better judgment, I even felt a surprising attachment, or slight protectiveness. 

If Lionel was the bane of my existence, he also occupied its center. I found myself “editing” my movements, my conversations, not only so that I could hear his better, but also in full knowledge that he could hear mine. I started whispering while on the phone, recounting my sleepless nights. 

I had become an unwilling voyeur, running a system of constant surveillance in my own home.  

If this case was unpleasant, there are plenty of counterexamples of the art of illicit listening and watching. After all, who among us hasn’t hesitated just a little too long outside a well-lit apartment window, sneaking a peek into the private psychic spaces of strangers? Or paid a little too much attention to the conversation unfolding at the next table? The joys of surreptitious observing—ok, spying—are many. 

We can’t help but look and listen. Yet what if it were not a burden, but even a call for self-reflection and an incitement to change? Perhaps no film has captured this revelatory aspect of voyeurism quite so beautifully as Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen, 2006). Set in the claustrophobic East Berlin of November 1984, the film homes in on Stasi Captain Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe) and his growing obsession with his assignment: playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) and his actress girlfriend, Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck). What starts as Wiesler’s professionally motivated spectatorship gradually turns into active engagement with and, eventually, collaboration with his “subjects.” 

“We are the Party’s shield and sword.”

The film sets the mood within seconds with an introductory caption: “Glasnost is nowhere in sight. The population of the GDR is kept under strict control by the Stasi, the East German Secret Police. Its force of 100,000 employees and 200,000 informers safeguards the Dictatorship of the Proletariat. Its declared goal: to know everything.” 

The weight of nonstop surveillance was no mere paranoia: as von Donnersmarck establishes in his opening scenes, the climate of fear, suspicion, and mistrust was deeply embedded in the fabric of what the film’s characters call the “System.” In that way, The Lives of Others resembles a filmic version of the panopticon, a social experiment initially introduced by English philosopher Jeremy Bentham in the 18th century to be used principally as a strategy of surveillance in prisons, schools, and factories. From a prison tower, a guard could watch all the inmates in their cells; the prisoners, on the other hand, could not see into the tower. The prickly terror of incessant monitoring would, in effect, change one’s behavior. 200 years later, Michel Foucault would criticize the panopticon, both as an architectural and social construct: he argued that even the belief that you were always being watched was cruel and constituted a form of unjust imprisonment. 

Ulrich Mühe’s Captain Wiesler physically embodies this torment, occupying the role of the surveillant and the surveilled, as he knows very well that no one is exempt from suspicion and interrogation. We are first introduced to Wiesler as he lectures to a class of aspiring Stasi agents. He walks them through the steps of detecting liars through the most minute giveaways: a prisoner might start repeating the same, canned story over and over, or start sobbing after days of sleep deprivation when he realizes that he can no longer fool his captors. As Wiesler’s features remain bizarrely placid and neutral, one can’t help but wonder: what rumbles beneath these still waters? 

When Wiesler’s smug superior, Lt. Col. Anton Grubitz (Ulrich Tukur), invites him to the theater to attend a performance written by famed playwright Georg Dreyman, Wiesler sneers that the writer is “an arrogant type, the kind I warn my students about.” Yet Grubitz concedes that Dreyman is actually loyal—their ultimate test of ideological purity—and at the very least “thinks the GDR is the greatest country on Earth.” As they settle in the balcony, Wiesler watches the play from up high, switching back and forth between the performance of beautiful actress Christa-Maria Sieland and the reactions of her lover Dreyman through a pair of binoculars. At this point, Wiesler does not yet know that this act of watching will not only spell his professional undoing but ultimately ignite the embers of his humanity. 

That same night, Grubitz informs Wiesler that he is to set up round-the-clock surveillance of Dreyman’s apartment, installing bugs along the linings of the walls behind the light switches. The orders have come from the top: Minister Bruno Hempf (an unctuous Thomas Thieme) has his eye (and hands) on Christa-Maria and wants to dig up dirt on Dreyman to get his rival out of the way. But for now, the “why” is irrelevant to the ever-obedient Wiesler; he will do as he is told, perfunctorily and unquestioningly. 

Soon after, we enter the towering, prison-like edifice that houses many Stasi agents. The camera follows Wiesler as he walks into his sterile apartment, which beautifully illustrates his affectless apathy. It resembles a depressing motel: a couple of framed prints barely light up the cheap, eggshell wallpaper, while a lumpy couch and a boxy TV round out the hollow space. It feels more like a sanitized waiting room than someone’s home. We watch Wiesler prepare his dinner. Over a bowl of boiled noodles, he gently squirts a tube of unheated tomato paste; even eating dinner has become rote, a joyless and mechanical act. 

And so it comes as something of an existential jolt to the System when Wiesler breaks into Dreyman’s apartment with his team of spies to set up the hidden recording devices. Where our Stasi agent’s abode is barren, the writer and actress live in a home teeming with vitality and beauty: we see large, colorful works of art adorning the walls, a piano strewn with sheet music and framed pictures, copies of Brecht and volumes of thick books scattered everywhere. The apartment is airy, vivid, and light—Wiesler’s antipode. 

As the crew of Stasi agents exit Dreyman’s apartment, the panopticon effect comes into full force: we observe a neighbor spying on Wiesler and his team through a peephole. When Wiesler senses a presence behind the door, he threatens the woman by telling her, straight to the point, “One word of this to anyone, and Masha loses her spot at the university.” The woman nods solemnly. This system of surveillance—of curt and unveiled threats—keeps everyone in check. Wiesler is a cog, but he is hardly unthinking. There is hope yet. 

“I’m your audience.” 

At first, Wiesler treats the surveillance job, labeled “Operation Lazlo,” as purely obligatory, a run-of-the-mill worknight. During Dreyman’s birthday party, he listens to and scribbles down the words of the other guests, including subversive, blacklisted writer Jerska (Volkmar Kleinert) and outspoken militant Paul (Hans-Uwe Bauer). At one point, Paul accuses another guest of working for the Stasi, yelling before storming out, “If you don’t take a stand, you’re not human.” As he leaves, he tells Dreyman that unless he starts to use his important status within the GDR to do something, they can part ways as friends. 

After the guests leave, Dreyman opens his birthday gift from Jerska: sheet music for “Sonata for a Good Man.” Meanwhile, we see Wiesler listening from a crepuscular attic; he types out in his report: “11:04 pm. ‘Lazlo’ and CMS unwrap presents. Then presumably have intercourse.” The dry, laughably robotic language belies Wiesler’s deeply suppressed inner turmoil. Striking the keys of a typewriter, Wiesler writes his notes in a spooky, cavernous space. The unidentified room is somber and dimly lit; Wiesler seems to float on a threshold between the living and the undead, while he listens in on the vibrant scenes from down below. Perpetually zipped all the way up in a hideous gray, collared jacket (which vaguely resembles a Nazi uniform), Wiesler seems to pulsate discomfort, even within his own body. In more ways than one, our Stasi antihero appears to have inherited the clammy anxiety of Gene Hackman’s wiretapper Harry Caul in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974). 

But if Caul similarly quaked with unease (while also donning an awkward, nondescript slicker), Wiesler is not exactly incapable of feeling. At one painfully sad moment, he basks in intimacy with a sex worker, who is literally paid down to the minute—she instructs him to book her for longer next time after he asks her to stay. He does feel something, and one of the great gifts of our own voyeurism is to witness his transition from numb participant within the System to willful protector of Dreyman and Christa-Maria. 

“You are a good man.” 

Change doesn’t exactly come overnight. But, bit by bit, the cracks in the veneer of the hyper-organized System begin to show; Wiesler slowly begins to reject his soul-deadening work. The first visible breakdown comes when Dreyman receives a disturbing phone call: Jerska, the blacklisted writer, has just hanged himself. Wordlessly, Dreyman pulls out his friend’s gift—the “Sonata for a Good Man”—and as he beautifully plays the piano, we cut to a silent Wiesler listening in, sitting utterly alone with tears streaming down his face. Dreyman wonders aloud to Christa-Maria, “Can anyone who has heard this music, I mean truly heard it, really be a bad person?”

We don’t need to cut back to Wiesler’s reaction to know that his life has been split in two. What does it look like to be a good person? the film—and we—might ask. 

The answer comes in part in a startling scene of heartbreaking empathy. We’ve watched throughout the story as Christa-Maria has tried to stave off the smarmy and predatory advances of Minister Hempf. Her shame threatens to take over, as she must privately swallow pills to stomach their secret, coercive encounters. On one such night, Dreyman pleads with her to stay: “You don’t need him. You don’t need him…Christa-Maria, you are a great artist. I know that. And your audience knows it, too. You don’t need him. You don’t need him. Stay here. Don’t go to him.” We feel Wiesler’s presence as she responds, gravely, 

No? Don’t I need him? Don’t I need this whole System? What about you? Then you don’t need it either. Or need it even less. But you get in bed with them, too. Why do you do it? Because they can destroy you, too, despite your talent and your faith. Because they decide what we play, who is to act, and who can direct. You don’t want to end up like Jerska. And neither do I. That’s why I’m going now. 

We watch Wiesler as he listens intently, acutely aware of his own culpability, his own cooperation in this corrupt rot. He stumbles to a bar, orders a drink, and, aghast, realizes that Christa-Maria has entered and is now sitting at the next table. Downing a shot, Wiesler gathers courage before walking over. “Ms. Sieland?” She looks startled: “Do we know each other?” With clarion honesty: “You don’t know me, but I know you.” He continues, “Many people love you, for who you are.” 

Desperately sad, she merely replies, “Actors are never who they are.” But, he insists, “You are.” Sitting down across from her, he reaches out—for the first time ever?—to save a life: “I’ve seen you onstage. You were more who you are then, than you are now…I’m your audience.” His equivocal admission puzzles her, but she listens, for the first and only time, to the man who has tracked her every movement. He says: “You are a great artist. Don’t you know that?” Before leaving, she returns this life-affirming gift: “And you are a good man.” 

To witness this moment is to see—to really see—the mysterious contagion of human goodness spread. Hearing her words, he is now, in this instant, more who he is than he ever was in that nightmarish attic. 

If we were to pinpoint the exact moment when Wiesler’s role as voyeur transforms into enabler, accomplice, and collaborator, it might be when, in the brutal coldness of obligation, he’s about to turn in Dreyman for having conspired with his artist friends to publish an illicit article about the secret, rising number of suicides in the German Democratic Republic. Seconds away from alerting Grubitz, he stops himself, in utter disgust, when he hears what his superiors would do to a type like Dreyman if ever caught and arrested: they’d keep him in solitary confinement for 10 months or so, without any human contact—“not even with the guards”—and then simply let him go. “Know what the best part is?” Grubitz chuckles. In most of these cases, they “never write anything again.” Of course, Wiesler’s own lonely life resembles a self-inflicted solitary confinement. And now, having listened in on every moment of the playwright and actress’s heartbreak, passion, music, and poetry, he will not trade his soul for Dreyman’s. 

Dedicated to HGW XX/7, in gratitude.” 

Years have now passed for Wiesler and Dreyman. In the film’s astonishing climax, Wiesler had saved Dreyman from imminent arrest by the Stasi by hastily removing an incriminating typewriter (the same one used to leak articles about the dark side of the GDR). After gently coaxing the typewriter’s hidden location out of Christa-Maria during an interrogation, Wiesler had rushed back to their apartment, immaculately destroying evidence. Unable to bear her shame, Christa-Maria had rushed into oncoming traffic.

If Dreyman thus avoids prison time, Wiesler has now sacrificed his career and his livelihood. Grubitz correctly suspects his handiwork, and for the next few years, Wiesler sits in a dank, windowless office steaming opening letters sent into and within the GDR. That is, until November 9th, 1989: “Dear listeners,” he hears on the radio, “[This day] will go down in history!” With the fall of the Berlin Wall, Wiesler is freed from purgatory. But for what?

At the very end of the film, after Dreyman comes to realize that a Stasi agent had been his shadow savior all along, he writes a novel, Sonata for a Good Man. He dedicates it to Wiesler, code name HGW XX/7, “in gratitude.” We fade to black as Wiesler buys a copy: “It’s for me,” he tells the bookseller. 

I think back now to Lionel: the man who had haunted my every waking and sleeping moment for those few years. Only once did I ever steal a glance of him and his girlfriend from afar, in the checkout line of the local grocery. I had often imagined what they looked like—I could certainly pick out their voices—with an interest verging on the neurotic. But seeing them there, buying roll-on deodorant and a head of lettuce, I was overcome by a wave of tenderness. They looked so ordinary. I then wondered if they had seen me. Did I live up to their expectations?

In an ultimate act of one-upmanship, we would both eventually move out. I know this because, on one very bad day, Lionel screamed his plans through the wall. He had become an unwilling participant in my days, and I in his, but this too would come to an end. Today, I wonder if he keeps his new neighbors up at night, if maybe he even regrets all those late-night slammed doors. 

We can never fully know the invisible witnesses to our lives, those who have hurt or helped us. One would like to think that those eavesdropping on us might find something there that is worthy or honorable, just as we might find the quiet good in the lives of others.