Snitch Culture

The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen) Opens Feb. 9

Snitching is one of the primal human impulses, and from early on it’s fraught with ambiguity. The same parent or teacher who punishes you for withholding guilty knowledge greets your offer to tell all by snapping, “No one likes a tattle-tale.” We make heroes of whistleblowers and undercover cops but despise stool pigeons and secret police. What looks like commendable loyalty from one direction is treachery from the other side.

Ulrich Mühe as Captain Gerd Wiesler. Photo by Hagen Keller. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics. All rights reserved.

Is it coincidence, in this era of security threats and “total information” schemes, that so many thoughtful films have lately taken up snitching’s moral confusions? “The Departed,” “The Good Shepherd,” and “Notes on a Scandal” are very different pictures, but all three center on people who violate the confidence of those close to them in service to what they would like to think is a higher loyalty. And in all three, the betrayal has a corrosive effect not just on those who are betrayed but on the snitches themselves.

There’s probably no richer context for contemplating the power of snitchery than East Germany in the years before the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Communist regime that built it. That treacherous world is the setting for the wonderful German film “The Lives of Others,” which tells the story of one secret policeman and the people he spies on. By turns witty and horrifying, moving and puzzle-box clever, visually delicious and morally profound, it dramatizes the terrible price a society pays when it destroys trust in pursuit of security.

For more than four decades the German Democratic Republic kept alive a rigidly austere version of Communism, notwithstanding the myriad capitalist lures of West Germany right next door. Maintaining the regime’s iron grip was the Ministry for State Security, which elevated snitching to a primary motor of governance.

The Stasi, as it was familiarly known (and it was nothing if not familiar), maintained files on something like 6 million of the nation’s 16 million citizens. That included mountains of paper filled with information supplied by as many as 400,000 informants. As the Stasi’s chief famously said, “Security means knowing everything.” Under threat, or in exchange for favors, people snitched on their co-workers, friends, families, even spouses, in a system enforced by interrogations, imprisonment, and persuasions that anyone but a member of the Bush administration would describe as torture.

We see that system at work in the person of bullet-headed Stasi officer Gerd Wiesler, brilliantly portrayed by Ulrich Mühe. The film opens as Captain Wiesler deftly breaks down a hapless young man, forcing him to rat out a neighbor. Worse than the interrogation itself is watching Wiesler recapitulate it, with the aid of a reel-to-reel tape recorder, for a class of eager young men and women training to become Stasi officers themselves. Monsters like Officer Wiesler are not born, but called into being by the societies that need them.

Wiesler’s attention turns to Georg Dreyman, a famous playwright who has managed to win both the patronage of the regime’s leaders and the respect of the literary West. As played by Sebastian Koch, he’s fortune’s darling: brilliant, charming, and good-looking. Moreover, his beautiful girlfriend Christa (Martina Gedeck) is the country’s most highly regarded actress. Dreyman indeed has it all, but envy is a dangerous emotion to stir up, particularly in a totalitarian state. “He’s our only non-subversive writer,” the culture minister tells Wiesler as they both appraise Christa’s charms. “I’d have him monitored.”

Wiesler follows orders in meticulous Mission Impossible style, bugging Dreyman’s Berlin apartment and listening in on every moment of the couple’s lives from a secret command center in their apartment building’s attic. The Stasi’s interest unleashes a chain reaction of deceptions and betrayals, embroiling Wiesler himself when he discovers that his snooping is less about national security than his higher-ups’ unsavory personal agendas.

This is the feature debut of screenwriter and director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, who has drawn wonderful performances from his stellar cast. A standout is Mühe, who brings Wiesler to life as something far more interesting than either villain or hero. Staring through the mask of his blankly officious face, his eyes gradually reveal how much his devotion to his duty is costing him.

Henckel von Donnersmark also succeeds in capturing the other-worldly quality of East Berlin during the Communist era, its empty streets, obsolete technologies, and obliviously unironic retro style. In contrast to Goodbye Lenin, which viewed the ancient regime through a scrim of good-humored nostalgia, The Lives of Others never lets us forget that the passé design and worse food are the corollaries of millions of lives deformed by soul-rotting oppression. Yet as soon as Communism collapses, the graffiti that blares across every surface points to our capitalist freedoms—and also to our own lengthy menu of discontents.

One of the many themes twining through the film is art’s function as both solace and subversion, opiate and catalyst. Dreyman’s book-filled, rambling apartment, with its grand piano and Western newspapers, is contrasted to Wiesler’s sterile high-rise cubicle, an environment so harshly rationalized—there’s even a Stasi prostitute who provides her services on a tight schedule—that it seems designed to purge feeling of any kind.

Dreyman’s mild bohemianism has allowed him to accommodate himself to the powers that be, yet it represents a rebuke to his patrons as well. And that which makes life in East Germany bearable for him, by evoking ideas and emotions that can’t be officially sanctioned, ultimately makes it unbearable as well.

It’s an idea that’s powerfully dramatized by the film’s gorgeous score, composed by Gabriel Yared, whose previous work includes the music for The Talented Mr. Ripley and The English Patient. A turning point in The Lives of Others hinges on a ravishing piano piece entitled “Sonata for a Good Person,” also composed by Yared, which credibly provokes Wiesler to ask himself, “Can anyone who has heard this music, I mean truly heard it, really be a bad person?”—and to dread the implications of even raising that question.

Wiesler’s rigid self-control and haunted eyes reveal the hopelessness of the regime’s effort to endlessly extend its power, “to know everything.” The Stasi fails to uncover evidence of Dreyman’s disloyalty to the regime—he isn’t disloyal. But the weight of the state’s suspicion eventually drives Dreyman (and not only Dreyman) to otherwise unthinkable acts of rebellion. Like controlling parents and jealous lovers, the overbearing state makes real what it most fears. No matter how sincerely devoted people may be to the party, the leader, the system, the object of their loyalty will always suspect they’re holding something back. That’s because they always are. The Lives of Others reminds us that secrets and conflicting desires, messiness and contradiction are intrinsic to our humanity—even the humanity of the secret police.

Contributor

Tessa DeCarlo

Tessa DeCarlo claims to have a few illusions remaining.

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