For FAQs and current status of services and policies see UW Libraries Operations Updates
“Hope is the Last Thing to Die”: Infrapolitics in The Lives of Others
by Kaleigh Boyd
“You have to pick a side sometime. Otherwise you’re not a person” (Lives). These words haunt The Lives of Others. They also take on new meaning when considered in terms of the theory of “infrapolitics” described by James Scott, which argues that seemingly meaningless forms of resistance are actually key to providing a basis for more substantial forms of rebellion. Though Scott describes infrapolitics in terms of subordinates acting against an oppressive state, The Lives of Others offers a different perspective, focusing in large part on the work of a member in the state. In this way, The Lives of Others argues that members of a state can practice infrapolitics against the state that they work for, encouraging audiences to reconceive their notions of how protest against a state usually operates.
In the midst of the Cold War conflict and a socialist-run East Berlin, Georg Dreyman, a well-known dramatist, secretly harbors animosity for the overpowering government that has banned his friend and colleague, Jerska, from continuing to direct. When experienced interrogator and Stasi official Gerd Wiesler detects Dreyman is less than loyal to the German Democratic Republic (DDR), he recommends Dreyman be investigated. Wiesler’s superiors, Lieutenant Colonel Anton Grubitz and Culture Minister Bruno Hempf, are more than happy to acquiesce, as Hempf is romantically interested in Dreyman’s long time girlfriend and successful actress Christa-Maria Sieland. The more time Wiesler spends observing Dreyman and Sieland in their apartment, however, the more he is compelled by their lives; compelled enough, in fact, to risk his own position in the DDR to protect them from the government he has so long believed in and supported.
Perhaps the most important aspect of Scott’s theory that he delineates is the “hidden transcript” quality of infrapolitics. “The meaning of the text [...] is rarely straightforward; it is often meant to communicate one thing to those in the know and another to outsiders and authorities” (184). Infrapolitics, in acting as a hidden transcript, also “[...] provides much of the cultural and structural underpinning of the more visible political action on which our attention has generally been focused” (184). So while acts of infrapolitics are generally only visible to those “in the know,” they furnish the basis for more direct acts of defiance against an authority. Infrapolitics, Scott also argues, is real politics; when oppressive regimes give subordinated classes little options other than the practice of small acts of meaningful resistance, infrapolitics acts as a means of political engagement.
In The Lives of Others, the “hidden transcript” of infrapolitics was, for the most part, quite literally a transcript. Wiesler, in investigating Dreyman, was given the charge of monitoring Dreyman’s apartment. He created a transcript of all the major events, giving Dreyman the codename “Lazlo.” Once Wiesler had become fully involved in the lives of Dreyman and Sieland, however, this transcript became something other than a report of true facts; Wiesler falsified information in the reports in order to make Dreyman seem less threatening to the state than other officials might deem him to be. The first and most blatant example of this came when Dreyman and his comrades were trying to determine if Dreyman’s apartment was bugged or not. Lying to Wiesler (whom they were unsure was there), Dreyman and his friends made it sound as though one of them would be smuggling a person across the border out of East Germany. Wiesler picked up the phone to report the suspected crime, but, because he knew it would mean the end of Dreyman, hung up without a word. Because their apparent crime went unnoticed to officials, Dreyman and his colleagues continued their work, falsely supposing that the apartment was free from state surveillance. The transcript of Dreyman’s life (Wiesler wrote during this interlude that there were “No noteworthy incidents”) acted, therefore, as a “hidden transcript” because it imparted meaning only to Wiesler, who wrote it, and Dreyman, who would later read it and understand what Wiesler had done for him. The only communication that took place between Dreyman and Wiesler in The Lives of Others was, in fact, through writing, illustrating the importance of this hidden transcript for the work Wiesler and Dreyman did. Dreyman read the transcripts delineated by Wiesler, and Wiesler discovered that Dreyman dedicated his book to him following the destruction of the Berlin Wall. The meanings of these writings were known only to Dreyman and Wiesler, who recognized the lies that were told in order for Dreyman to continue his work.
In this way, we understand how the “hidden transcript” was necessary for the other facet of Scott’s infrapolitics. Wiesler’s decision not to report the apparent border violation not only went against his duties to the state, it provided the basis for Dreyman to concoct a more direct affront to the state. Because he believed that no one was observing his apartment, Dreyman continued with his plan to write about the suicide rate in Germany, illuminating one of the many problems of the German socialist state to the rest of the world. Indeed, Wiesler, knowing that Dreyman was writing about this taboo topic, continued to report that Dreyman was writing a play for the 40th anniversary of the DDR and instructed his subordinate to do the same. Grubitz, Wiesler’s superior, never learned outright that Dreyman was writing a rather scathing report on the DDR, and so it was published before a state actor could ever discover it and prevent its dispersal. Wiesler’s practice of infrapolitics, therefore, was an important basis for an actual move towards more direct confrontation, though Dreyman was not aware that Wiesler’s infrapolitical action had taken place.
Understanding the role of a state actor in practices of infrapolitics in many ways encourages audiences to reconceive Scott’s original theory of infrapolitics as coming from the subordinated class. Prevailing conceptions of protest against the state generally involve popular uprisings that emerge from the ground up. Scott himself discusses infrapolitics in terms of such movements as slaves using hidden transcripts that, in some cases, became uprisings; forest crimes, especially poaching, in Europe against laws created by monarchs; and the Russian peasantry opening up new land after the Bolshevik seizure of power. The Lives of Others, however, challenges this notion. Instead of a “subject” of the state, as Scott calls subordinate groups, Wiesler is a member of the state itself. Whereas Scott notes that because of the distant relationship between subjugated groups and the state “[...] the actual balance of forces is never precisely known [...]” (192), Wiesler was well aware of the actual balance of forces because he represented the state itself. Dreyman, for example, in supposing that his apartment was not bugged, declared, “Who would have thought our State security’s so inept? Who’d of thought such idiots even exist!” Wiesler succinctly--though inaudibly--replied, “Just wait.” As a member and operative of the state, Wiesler was privy to knowledge people like Dreyman and his colleagues did not have, namely the regular operations of the state itself. Knowing this allowed Wiesler to effectively practice his infrapolitics by altering reports, giving false information, and commanding subordinates as necessary. Viewers of The Lives of Others are thus given ample reason to reconsider their perception of resistance to an oppressive state and form an understanding that includes resistance beginning with members of the state itself. Though many throughout The Lives of Others note that “Hope is the last thing to die,” we can see now that this hope for a better state might not only come from the subjugated, but also from state representatives.
Especially in the context of popular uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa, a new understanding of the role of infrapolitics as paving the way for outright rebellion is extremely important. Egypt, particularly, stands out as an arena in which actors of the state, in this case the army, were pivotal in paving the way for the continuation and effectiveness of the protests. As we look to the spread of further protests and popular dissent, understanding how actors that represent the state can foster the growth of these displays of resistance will be key to our conceptions of the fights. We may no longer look at these struggles as strictly between one side, the state, and the other, the people.
Scott, James C. "The Infrapolitics of Subordinate Groups." Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts. By James C. Scott. New Haven: Yale UP, 1990. 183-201. Print.
The Lives of Others. Dir. Florian H. Von Donnersmarck. By Florian H. Von Donnersmarck. Prod. Max Wiedemann and Quirin Berg. Perf. Martina Gedeck, Ulrich Mühe, Sebastian Koch, and Ulrich Tukur. Sony Pictures Classics, 2007.