On May 10, 1983, Russian writer and dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn accepted the Templeton Prize. During his speech, he said the following: “Over half a century ago, while I was still a child, I recall a number of older people offer the following explanation for the great disasters that have befallen Russia: ‘Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.’ . . . if I were asked today to formulate as concisely as possible the main cause of this ruinous revolution that swallowed up some 60 million of our people, I could not put it more accurately than to repeat: ‘Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.’”
Although Solzhenitsyn was speaking about Russia, the explanation can be applied to the decades of Communist totalitarianism in East Germany. People lived in misery and despair, but mostly in fear from being hunted and interrogated by the East German Staatssicherheitsdienst (State Security Service), known more commonly as the Stasi.
The ministry was known for its interrogation tactics which primarily included psychological warfare. The interrogator broke down the prisoner (often induced by forced sleep deprivation), used family members as blackmail for information, infinitely repeated the questions until the prisoner would give in and “confess” to being “guilty.” These “crimes” usually consisted of helping someone cross the border between East and West Germany, speaking out against ideology (especially in the case of artists and intellectuals), and showing any inclination toward thinking that did not align with the socialist ideology.
One of the most dramatic and beautiful explorations of the East German state and its cruelty is illustrated in a 2006 German film, “The Lives of Others,” directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. It focuses on the intertwined lives of a playwright, Georg Dreyman; an actress, Christa-Maria Sieland; and a Stasi officer, Gerd Wiesler. Dreyman writes good plays that align with socialist ideology, and as such, he is not suspected by the state to be a threat of any kind. Judging from his interactions with the state officers who frequent the theater and watch his plays, he may even actually support socialist principles.
While Wiesler’s commanding officer, Anton Grubitz, thinks that Dreyman is absolutely safe, Wiesler is convinced that Dreyman needs to be monitored, and so commences the surveillance headed by Wiesler. Dreyman’s apartment and phone have been bugged and Wiesler listens in to his conversations from the apartment building’s attic. The intention is to gather as much information as possible that will implicate Dreyman for a very simple reason: it would mean a better career move for both Grubitz and Wiesler.
In the meantime, one of Dreyman’s friends and colleagues, Albert Jerska, commits suicide. He has been blacklisted and unable to direct any plays. This prompts Dreyman to explore the number of suicides that occur in East Germany, and why the details of suicides are suppressed by the Stasi. He arranges to write an exposéon the subject for the West German magazine, Der Spiegel, but it must be typed on a West German typewriter in order to conceal the source.
Dreyman continuously suspects that Christa-Maria (with whom he is in a relationship) might be an informant for the Stasi. This creates an atmosphere of distrust and suspicion, not to mention fear. The entire state system is based on fear and suspicion, and as such, the society is unable to flourish in any way. The only people who are, in some sense, rewarded in this system are those who, though not necessarily believers in it, have mastered all the pretense of it in order to gain a more secure career within the system itself. In other words, those who thrive have to be willing to destroy a person within the system in order to advance themselves.
Almost everyone is broken. Christa-Maria is addicted to pills, and she gives in to one of the state ministers and trades information in order to fuel her addiction. In her words, she is “nothing without the system.” Dreyman is losing his sense of intellectual stability, knowing that no amount of words written can explain the cruelty of the system. Wiesler is also a broken man, but his fragmentation comes from a different place.
Unlike Grubitz, who is only concerned with his so-called career, Wiesler appears to believe firmly in the principles of the East German state. He thinks that the surveillance is justified because people like Dreyman are the enemies of the state. Yet Wiesler is a nobody. He lives alone in a cold and impersonal building in an equally cold and impersonal apartment that is bare, monochromatic, and lifeless. He watches TV solely for the state news, and is highly orderly and meticulous. He appears to be without family or friends.
Yet something begins to change in him throughout the surveillance. Through the headphones, he hears Dreyman’s and Christa-Maria’s joys, humor, and even love-making. He is intruding on the most private and intimate spheres of individual life, and the totalitarian system he represents is the annihilator of being. Anything that is true, good, and beautiful is the enemy of the state. Wiesler knows this ideologically, but as he hears more conversations, he sees more humanity not only in the subjects of surveillance but also in himself.
It is as if Wiesler didn’t truly exist before. He was a cog in the Communist machine, and as he totalized and dehumanized others, he has done the same to himself. He realizes that he has not gained any strength for all of his spying, interrogating, and breaking people. On the contrary, he has grown weaker. As he distantly experiences the joyful and erotic relationality between Dreyman and Christa-Maria, he begins to awaken to a new reality—something that he perhaps never felt to begin with.
An ideologue is committed not only to furthering the totalitarian system but also to the killing of the human spirit. Any joy, happiness, and creativity that a person may exhibit is seen as an absolute anathema to the system and ideology. If a person feels happy, it means that he or she is truly living, and most of all, he or she is free. It is precisely this interior freedom that any totalitarian hates. An interior freedom cannot be touched or extinguished by any ideological system but its existence does raise another question: Can an authoritarian, like Wiesler, be changed? This question is at the heart of the film.
Whose life is he living? He is spying on others, but isn’t he also living for the twisted and evil apparatus of the system? He is not in possession of his own interior self, he realizes, but in a moment of experiencing the beauty expressed by someone else, Wiesler begins to change. Following the suicide of Albert Jerska, Dreyman proceeds to sit at the piano and play a sonata given to him by Jerska. It’s called “Sonata for a Good Man,” and as he hears this, Wiesler is overtaken by emotion. He cannot comprehend the nature of what is happening to him, but beauty cannot be explained. He is at peace with this, and as the film unfolds, Wiesler does become a good man. It is as if the film director wants us to think that “beauty will save the world.”
In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt wrote that “ideologies are never interested in the miracle of being.” Ideologies hate the mystery of being as well. It is the notion of the unknown and something higher than ourselves—God—that frightens an ideologue.
At the beginning of the film, Wiesler was deeply envious of Dreyman’s freedom that could not be touched by the system. But as he engaged in more and more surveillance, he realized that he too can be free, but only if he is good. Freedom comes from “the courage to be,” to use Paul Tillich’s words, from knowledge that no ideological and indeed no political system can offer salvation. Only the strength of the human spirit and God can lead us out of any totalitarian system’s cruel labyrinth. Only when we recognize that we are human and that the other person who is standing before us is also human, can we truly enter into a real community of authentic individuals and flourish.