Cinema is a treasure trove of moments so haunting in their depiction of human relations that they become as much a part of us as the memory of a first kiss or a last parting. One of those jewels is the scene in “The Lives of Others” (2006), the Oscar-winning film about government corruption in East Berlin, where informant Hauptman Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Muhe) dissolves into tears as he listens, through bugs he planted, to a piano sonata performed by the playwright he is spying on. Playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) is mourning the loss of a friend (Volkmar Kleinert) whom he just learned has hung himself. “Sonata for a Good Man” is the kind of music that evokes the image of a figure alone in the light of a weeping moon – dolorous, tortured. Dreyman does not play it with the theatrics one would in a concert hall; rather, he hunches over the keyboard a broken man and he asks, “You know what Lenin said about Beethoven’s ‘Appasionata’? ‘If I keep listening to it, I won’t finish the revolution.’ Can anyone who has heard this music, I mean truly heard it, really be a bad person?” The recipient to the question is his girlfriend, Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck), muse and actress to his plays.
Wiesler is a loyal Stasi, a secret government police. Throughout his profession, he has heard by subterfuge numerous accusations of corruption against his leaders, and he has acted upon his power to incarcerate the accusers. In a system of governing that rewards blind obedience, he has spent his entire life viewing his fellow countrymen through a funnel. His subordinates fear him. His superiors trust him. Suddenly, it so turns out everyone locked up because of him could be right; those above him to whom he has pledged allegiance are indeed bad. By virtue of his commitment to them, so is he.
When “The Lives of Others” was released, it received international acclaim. In addition to the Oscar for Best Foreign Film, it obtained awards in Bavaria, France, and Great Britain. Critics lauded it as one of the ten best films of 2007. It’s appeal is not Eurocentric. I saw “The Lives of Others” upon its screening in American theaters and later watched it with my family during Christmas holidays in the Philippines some years after. Everyone from my nephews, then aged 16 to 26, responded to it as did my sister, brother-in-law, and parents. The film’s impact is that it exceeds the boundaries of political history. It is, at its heart, the story of a man’s vivification as he comes to understand and embrace those he has been conditioned to condemn.
Art is a potent weapon in the fight for our freedom to be seen and heard, for our right to individual expression. The noble characters in “The Lives of Others” are a writer, an actress, and a composer. Activist students marching with fists in the air are not what awaken Wiesler’s soul. It is music. And poetry. Enter Bertolt Brecht:
On a certain day in blue-moon September, beneath a young plum tree, I held her there, my silent pale love, in my arms like a fair and lovely dream. Above us in the summer skies was a cloud that caught my eye. It was white and so immensely high. And when I looked up, it was no longer there.
So forsaken is Wiesler that his investment in the assignment has switched from sedition to the shared domestic life between Dreyman and Sieland: the quarrels; the morning greetings and evening well wishes; the opinion on a tie; and the sounds of lovemaking.
Conscious of it or not, we are all involved with the lives of others. Last night, while waiting for the underground Muni, I saw a blond boy in his early 20s, in owl glasses and black sneakers and with a condition that caused his leg to shake while he stood stationary. I wondered about the bullying that tormented him as a child on account of his leg, his loneliness, his pain. Then I envied him. He was smiling because he had a friend, another young man, one who was large and hefty and who held him in a way that made it evident they were in love.
That is what I do every day in forming a connection to the world; I observe people – couples on the street holding hands, in a café sipping from the same straw, laughing in harmony; parents; newlyweds; pairs both young and old. I am drawn to lovers. “How would you define love?” someone once asked me. “Good question,” I said. “I don’t know.” Though I have my own ideas, none of it is anything I have ever whispered into another’s ear. Neither have I ever been called upon to prove them. Everybody else, it seems, is more of an expert on the subject than I, even a boy whose nerves are shot and who has, as his saving grace, nothing more than a smile. I am that close to eavesdropping on the intimacies of others.
None of us wants to see ourselves as a Wiesler – strained and alienated – and we are fortunate to be in a country that honors the democratic oath of free speech and civil dignity. Anything from critiques to insults is game in the comments section that follows an online article. We vote. We speak either for or against marriage equality. We denounce censorship of the press. We have kiss-in protests and porn and dating services. Nevertheless, for all we do so that the powers that be will acknowledge our needs, we can feel so very invisible. Government has nothing to do with it. It’s just part of being human.
For this reason, Wiesler is the character in “The Lives of Others” with whom I most identify. It’s my own doing. I’ve spent too many years endeavoring to emulate the image of the ideal man I have in in my head that I foil opportunities for intimacy. On the other hand, I am blessed to have Dreyman’s prowess with words and Sieland’s gift for drama. With stories I weave, I can caress the hearts of people from the subways of Manhattan to the sands of Boracay. I can be everything that I have wanted to be, but am unable to in reality.
Writer and director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck makes a clear statement in this movie hailed far and wide as a masterpiece: as the eyes, ears, and mouth of the human race, the artist is never alone.