When I left the cinema I had a title of Flannery O’Connor’s running in my head: A Good Man Is Hard to Find. But there is another title that provides a much better clue to the moral preoccupations of Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s first full-length film, The Lives of Others: Brecht’s Good Person of Szechuan. It was Brecht, too, who in response to the distribution of a leaflet announcing (in 1953) that the people of the DDR had ‘forfeited the confidence of the government’ wondered with mock innocence:
Would it not be easier
In that case for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?
‘You are a good person,’ an actress says to a Stasi captain in the film: ‘Sie sind ein guter Mensch.’ She doesn’t at this moment know he is the melancholy master of surveillance who is tracking every detail of her and her partner’s life. Is he a good person? Why is he spying on them? Have they done something to arouse the suspicion of the authorities? No, but they will. They do, or one of them does. Did we imagine the secret police of the DDR pursued people for nothing?
The Stasi captain, Gerd Wiesler, wonderfully played by Ulrich Mühe, who looks like a depressed and introverted Michel Piccoli, asks this last question near the beginning of the movie. It is in turn one of the standard, sardonic lines of Hitler’s SS, and has what is no doubt its secret sharer in the opening of Kafka’s The Trial. But Wiesler is not being sardonic, he is being sadly sincere. He knows the guilty often look innocent, but he’s not fooled. He knows that guilty people repeat their stories of innocence verbatim, and that innocent people get angry at their interrogation, while guilty people go quiet. We see him grilling a suspect on the basis of these principles, and we see him teaching his expertise at the Stasi college. The students are disturbed, but impressed. The time is 1985.
The Berlin of the film is all greys and blues and yellows, static, anonymous. It is not ugly or grim, it’s rather beautiful in its bleached out way, and doesn’t offer the usual architectural allegory of oppression in the East. The place is merely subdued, soaked in unspoken sadnesses, and the acting, excellent in every case, catches this too. There are people who are enjoying themselves: the porcine and lecherous minister of culture, for example, played with fine relish by Thomas Thieme, and Wiesler’s superior officer, a cheerful, unscrupulous man of ambition, slyly played by Ulrich Tukur. But everyone else is worried. A shot of the Stasi archive, late in the film, reminds us why. Here are shelves after shelves of files, a whole population watched and annotated. Who would have thought suspicion would have undone, or at least bullied, so many?
Wiesler is given the job of spying on Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch), a writer who has a spotless record of not protesting against the state. The reason for the surveillance, although Wiesler doesn’t understand this immediately, is that the minister fancies Dreyman’s partner, the actress Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck). Their apartment is comprehensively bugged, and Wiesler listens to everything that goes on: a birthday party, sex, phone calls, casual domestic conversations. Nothing suspicious, even for an expert in suspicion. Wiesler decides to move things along a bit, and allows Dreyman to know that Christa-Maria is in fact, with whatever loathing and despair, having sex with the minister. ‘Time for bitter truths,’ Wiesler says to himself, as he rings the bell of his victims’ apartment, so that Dreyman will go to the door of the building in time to see Christa-Maria getting out of the minister’s car. Dreyman doesn’t say anything to Christa-Maria and she doesn’t say where she’s been. Wiesler, with scarcely a change of expression on his face, registers the existence of realms of trust and affection, of reasons for silence, that he has never dreamed of, and begins to feel, more and more, the protector rather than the pursuer of the couple. When Dreyman, after the suicide of a blacklisted friend, writes an article for Der Spiegel about the unrecorded suicide rate in East Germany, none of the planning for the delivery of the piece, none of the compromising dialogue, shows up in Wiesler’s report. He even creates a synopsis of the play about Lenin Dreyman is pretending to write: that is, he replaces surveillance documentation with his own contribution to Dreyman’s fiction.
I don’t need to go into the further details of the intricate, subtle plot, which has surprises worth waiting for, or the moving epilogue which takes us into a world beyond the fallen Wall of 1989. But I do need to focus on three scenes of interrogation which structure the film, and give it its powerful air of constriction and futureless depression – no one here knows the wall will fall in four years’ time. The first scene I have already evoked. It is Wiesler’s questioning of a suspect right at the beginning of the movie, the one he uses (on tape) as a demonstration in his class at the Stasi college. Wiesler sits at a desk, the suspect on a chair in front of him. Wiesler, impeccably uniformed, is patient, courteous, even gentle. The suspect looks and sounds like the model of innocence, and we think we’ve got the wrongful, oppressive story. We haven’t, though. A later scene shows the suspect breaking down under the sheer pressure of sleep deprivation, and spilling out the information that Wiesler always knew the man had to give, in spite of his almost irresistibly plausible denials. Wiesler knows people. His very tidiness and melancholy give him a strange authority. He looks like that because of what he knows.
The third scene of interrogation – we’ll come back to the second – is an almost exact repetition of the first, in a similar office, with Wiesler sitting at a similar desk, and asking his questions in the same composed, persistent, polite manner. Except that now he is himself under suspicion, and being watched from a neighbouring room, and the person he is questioning is Christa-Maria. His job is to find out where Dreyman has hidden the West German typewriter he wrote his article on – the only proof they are likely to find that he wrote the article at all. He keeps asking, and she tells him. She has already informed on Dreyman once, without mentioning the typewriter. It is part of the moral delicacy of the film that we are able to feel horror at her acts without condemning her – precisely the double response that Dreyman himself has when he finds out. So has Wiesler conformed at last, returned to his old Stasi-self, saved his skin? He has asked all the questions his old self would have asked, and got the answers that self would have needed, but his subsequent behaviour is different, and provides the next-to-last turn of the plot. Is he a good man? He is a man trying to follow up on his previous defections from his repellent duty, and in context this could be seen as an extravagant form of virtue.
We couldn’t really understand any of this, though, were it not for the second scene of interrogation, right at the centre of the movie, which doesn’t take place in the Stasi offices, and indeed is not a formal interrogation at all. It does involve Wiesler and Christa-Maria. He has been listening in on a conversation the couple have been having about themselves and their lives. Dreyman says that since the suicide of his friend he doesn’t want to write anything or see anyone – the only thing he cares about is the possibility of losing her. She is on her way to meet the minister (she says she is going to see some old friends), and he knows. He asks her not to go. She just stands at the door. He asks her again.
Wiesler gives up listening, since it’s time for his subordinate to take over for his spell of surveillance. He waits on the street for a while, then goes into a bar and, unusually, has two double vodkas. Christa-Maria comes into the bar, orders a cognac, sits at another table. And then the incredible happens. Wiesler approaches her. Is he going to confess to the surveillance? No, he addresses her as an admirer of her acting, says he knows she undervalues her talent, although she is more herself on stage than in ordinary life. How does he know how she is in ordinary life? How does he know her? Christa-Maria understands there is something eerie going on, but decides to trust what she must think is the man’s intuition. When she says she has to leave because she is meeting some friends, he looks desperate and says she is not herself when she says that. This is where she remarks, after a pause, that he is a good person, grasping, presumably, that this strange communication is the message she has not previously been able to bring herself to hear. She leaves the bar. When Wiesler returns to his surveillance post for his next turn he reads his colleague’s report. Christa-Maria returned to the flat, the two were reconciled, made love. Her gesture (and Wiesler’s moral help) will mean she has no further career in the theatre – the minister will see to that – unless, of course, she is willing to inform on Dreyman. We return to the piece of the plot I have already described. This is a world where a small, temporary deferral of betrayal is an achievement.
There are two ways of reading the story of the good person. One is rather sentimental, and the film leans into it towards the end: it’s the story of the prodigal monster, the tormentor who discovers a little humanity in himself after all, and over whom in heaven there is more rejoicing than over the thousands of people who were not monsters to start with. In this version Wiesler is a hero, and the attraction of Mühe’s low-key presentation of the character contributes to this effect. The other reading provides no hero, and scarcely even a good person except in the bleakest, most diminished of perspectives. But it is, I think, more compelling than the first reading, and it is what the actual title of the film picks up. Wiesler does not find virtue or moral salvation; he finds, through the sheer patience and persistence of his spying, through the long, narrow act of abnegation that is his life, a form of humanity he can approach only vicariously, a world where the pleasures of ‘being friendly’, in Brecht’s phrase, do still exist against all the odds, and are not a mere mask or lure for corruption.