Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s film The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen), set mostly in East Germany in 1984, derives much of its emotional and intellectual power from its cogent exposition of an underlying theme, that of the human potential for goodness. How does a man or woman become good? To what extent is goodness, or evil, the expression of an individual’s personality - a matter of human nature - and to what extent is it the product of the external conditions under which that individual has developed - a matter of social conditioning?
The good person in the film turns out to be Hauptmann Wiesler of the East German Ministry of State Security, the dreaded Stasi. The powerful minister Hempf has Wiesler conduct a surveillance operation targeting the playwright Dreyman, whose actress partner he wants for himself. But Wiesler, disgusted, chooses to protect Dreyman, regardless of the cost to himself. Wiesler’s transformation from a desiccated technician of surveillance into an emotionally and morally conscious human being is mediated through his dawning awareness of art. A key turning-point occurs when, through the microphones he has planted in Dreyman’s flat, he hears the writer playing a piece of music entitled Die Sonate vom guten Menschen (The Sonata of the Good Person); nobody, declares Dreyman, can listen to this music and not be good. The silent shot of the eavesdropping Wiesler shows him with his head framed by his headphones and tears rolling down his face.
The sonata’s title has echoes of Bertolt Brecht’s play Der gute Mensch von Sezuan (The Good Person of Sezuan), which deals with the impossibility of being good in an evil world. The film quotes from Brecht when Wiesler reads, in Dreyman’s copy of Brecht’s poetry, the poem Erinnerung an die Marie A. (Memory of Marie A.), with its exquisitely poignant evocation of the transience of youthful love. The film is studded with references to the question of goodness: Dreyman’s partner, Christa-Maria, instinctively senses that Wiesler is ‘ein guter Mensch’, whereas the cynical Hempf maintains that human nature is irretrievably corrupt and can never change.
The soundtrack includes a musical setting of the poem Stell dich mitten in den Regen (Stand Right Out in the Rain) by Wolfgang Borchert, best known for the post-war drama Draußen vor der Tür (The Man Outside). Borchert, who died in 1947 aged 26 from hepatitis contracted as a dissident conscript on the Russian front, stands as an example of moral integrity. His poem consists of three stanzas, which urge the reader to confront rain, wind and fire, each concluding with the exhortation ‘und versuche gut zu sein’ (‘and try to be good’).
The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 allows the film a happy ending, though a very mixed one. Christa-Maria, unable to cope with Stasi pressure, commits suicide in 1984; and although the ‘Wende’ liberates Wiesler, he ends up in a menial job in the newly reunited Germany. Dreyman, however, discovers in his Stasi files the role that Wiesler had played in protecting him from the East German authorities. As a token of gratitude, he dedicates his new book to ‘HGW XX/7’, the codename by which he knows Wiesler from the files. The film ends with Wiesler buying a copy of ‘his’ book. Its title: Die Sonate vom guten Menschen.
The Lives of Others engages with an argument about changing society that was fought out on the German stage during the last century. When the Expressionists exploded into the German theatre around 1910, they adopted a revolutionary new approach to the drama. Central to this approach was their belief in the necessity of transforming what they saw as a corrupt, soulless, materialistic and inhuman society, by means of transforming human beings: they called this ‘die Erneuerung des Menschen’, the regeneration of mankind. By appealing to people’s hearts and minds, they sought to set in train a moral and spiritual transformation of individuals, which would then extend to society as a whole. Capitalist society, unjust and oppressive, would be replaced by a new community of love, freedom and justice.
The typical Expressionist drama follows the stages on its hero’s road from conventional, bourgeois life to a radically transformed, spiritually regenerate condition. In Ernst Toller’s Die Wandlung (Transformation) (1919), the hero, a young Jew, first hopes to overcome his isolation by identifying with the national cause in wartime, but then, appalled by war’s horrors, recognises his kinship with all humanity and embraces the ideals of peace, love and respect for human life. The triumph of peace and humanity over war and destruction also dominates Georg Kaiser’s Die Bürger von Calais (The Burghers of Calais), which shares its subject with Rodin’s famous sculpture depicting the six citizens of Calais who opted in 1347 to sacrifice their lives to save their city from destruction by the besieging English.
But the revolutionary upheavals in Central and Eastern Europe after 1918 demonstrated the limitations of the Expressionists’ brand of idealist socialism, with its utopian confidence in the power of moral appeals to create a better world. Already in Toller’s Masse Mensch (Masses and Man) (1921), the values of idealist socialism came into conflict with those of revolutionary Marxism, whose basic tenet was class war. But how, asked Toller, could one create a better, more humane society by fighting and killing other human beings? The noble end of bringing about a world of peace and brotherhood could never be achieved by employing violence and war. Yet unless they employed such means, the Expressionist idealists were doomed to political impotence; they could never hope to overthrow capitalism and institute a new and better social order by purely peaceful means. The heroine of Masse Mensch can find no solution to this tragic dilemma. When her antagonist, the nameless representative of the revolutionary masses, convinces her of the necessity of defending the revolution by force, the result is a bloodstained disaster.
The Marxist playwrights after 1918 took a diametrically opposed view. Whereas the Expressionists believed that the key to change lay in the hearts of individuals, the Marxists believed that only a radical shift in economic and political power structures could bring about lasting social change. Whereas the Marxists fought for the triumph of the working class over its enemies, the Expressionists deplored class conflict and hoped to reconcile the warring interests. One group, idealist socialists, believed that change for the better started with the individual and spread outwards, the other, Marxist materialists, that a just and equal social order must first provide the conditions under which individuals would become good.
Thus when Brecht confronted in Die Maßnahme (The Measure Taken) (1930) the same moral dilemma as that confronting Toller in Masse Mensch, he came to precisely the opposite conclusion, affirming the moral necessity of killing a comrade if the revolutionary cause demanded it. The moral scruples of idealist socialists, which caused them to baulk at violence, made them deeply suspect to the Marxists, who saw them as liable to betray the proletarian cause from a misconceived notion of ‘bourgeois’ morality. This is the case with the heroine of Brecht’s Die heilige Johanna der Schlachthöfe (Saint Joan of the Stockyards) (1930), who sabotages a potentially revolutionary upsurge by refusing to compromise her non-violent convictions.
This debate resurfaced in the 1960s, at the time of the ‘student revolution’. The campus radicals of the New Left, enamoured of the charms of Marxist materialism, again condemned idealist and utopian socialists as traitors to the proletarian cause who rejected the entire revolutionary strategy on false moral grounds. The idealists were ranked alongside the despised reformist socialists (the SPD in West Germany), who supposedly supported the capitalist system by opposing the strategy of overthrowing it outright. Tankred Dorst’s Toller (1968), for example, casts its playwright-cum-political-idealist hero in a distinctly unflattering light.
An interesting variation on this dramatic theme was Peter Weiss’s sensationally successful Marat/Sade (1964), where the French revolutionary Marat advocates the liberation of the proletariat by violence, while the Marquis de Sade espouses the cause of individual liberation, through the fulfilment of repressed desires. Charlotte Corday, who stabbed Marat in his bath, is cast as the naïve idealist who loathes revolutionary radicalism, and comes across as a misguided dupe.
Günter Grass, an SPD stalwart, adopted a more critical perspective on the Marxist project in his play Die Plebejer proben den Aufstand (The Plebeians Rehearse the Uprising) (1966), set against the 1953 workers’ uprising in East Berlin. A Brecht-like theatre director is seeking to adapt Coriolanus, that most anti-egalitarian and anti-democratic of Shakespeare’s plays, when the insurgent workers erupt into his theatre. As the uprising collapses in face of Soviet tanks, the director is forced to recognise that, just as his plans to make Coriolanus a different figure have failed on stage, so the old power structures have reasserted themselves in ‘proletarian’ East Germany. Perhaps the most one can hope for is the part-happy ending of The Lives of Others, where the removal of tyranny offers some prospect of an improvement in human relations.