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Oppression and Resistance in The Lives of Others
by Wei chen Wang
The 2006 German film Das Leben der Anderen by director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck provides an insightful glimpse into cultural and political climate of East Germany before the collapse of the Berlin Wall. The film takes a somber look at the oppression and subordination experienced by citizens of the German Democratic Republic, but also explores the inherent goodness in human nature. On close examination of the film, it is evident that it serves as a thinly veiled critique on the oppressive nature of totalitarianism, and provides a deep examination of numerous concepts regarding the nature of the state such as Foucault’s principle of Panopticism and the Scott’s Infrapolitics of oppressed societies.
Georg Dreyman is a successful playwright and intellectual in Stasi controlled East Germany (German Democratic Republic). Although he is considered an ally of the Republic, Captain Gerd Wiesler, a Stasi (State Security) official, is assigned to spy on Dreyman and his girlfriend, Christa-Marie Sieland using surveillance equipment implanted in their shared apartment. However, as Wiesler becomes more and more engrossed in Dreyman’s life, he develops sympathy for Dreyman and eventually aids him in his acts of resistance against the State.
Michel Foucault in his book Discipline and Punish states that the principle on which the Panopticon is based, namely that “surveillance is permanent in its effects, even if discontinued in its action”, is fundamentally the same principle on which authoritarian states are based. The Lives of Others provides an excellent illustration of Foucault’s and Bentham’s belief that panopticism produces power that is “visible and unverifiable” (Foucault, pp. 4).
Near the beginning of the film, Wiesler is invited by Lieutenant Colonel Grubitz to attend a play written by Dreyman, thus bringing him to his first encounter with the playwright. When he first sets eyes on Dreyman, he does so through binoculars, from a distance and out of sight; an act that will signify their relationship for the rest of the film. Wiesler immediately proclaims that he is the “arrogant”, and Grubitz describes him as “read in the West”. This is an example of the “binary division and branding” mode of individual control that is typical, in Foucault’s opinion, of how authorities exercising disciplinary control tend to function. By labeling Dreyman using such terms, he has essentially cast him into the minority as an intellectual artist (abnormal vs. normal) and thus a threat to the socialist state (dangerous vs. harmless).
After the play is over, Wiesler says to Grubitz “I would have him monitored” and even offers to lead the project himself. The second mode of individual control mentioned by Foucault, namely the “coercive assignment of differential distribution”, that are the disciplinary mechanisms used to alter an individual according to how he is perceived, is embodied in Wiesler’s proposal. Wiesler has already determined how he is to be categorized and characterized, and thus has been selected as a candidate for discipline through close surveillance (Foucault, pp. 2).
Foucault argues that the major effect that the Panopticon has is “to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power” (Foucault, pp. 4). Thus, rather than relying on constant surveillance in order to enforce discipline, the Panopticon merely instills the fear of constant surveillance so that the captives themselves become the perpetrators of their own subjection. In the scene where Dreyman visits Paul Hauser, a fellow playwright, to enlist his help in publishing an article, Hauser interrupts Dreyman and places his finger over his lips to signal silence. He then communicates using hand gestures and whispers whilst turning on the record player in order to conceal their conversation. Much like a prisoner in a Panopticon fears he is constantly being monitored by the omnipresent power; Hauser fears the Stasi have infiltrated his apartment, thus rendering him permanently visible to the gaze of the state. In this sense, the panoptic nature of the state surveillance has succeeded not because it has caught the perpetrator in any illegal act, but rather by making the individual “assume responsibility for the constraints of power” and forcing him into a power relationship in which he is both the constrainer and the constrained (Foucault, pp. 4).
The second prominent theme that featured in this film is Infrapolitics, or everyday forms of resistance. James Scott argues that systematic subordination invariably generates pressure that needs expression through small, symbolic acts on the part of the subordinated. An example of such a symbolic act occurs at the dinner party after Dreyman’s play. When Bruno Hempf, the Minister of Culture, says that he’s been following developments in the theater for a while, Dreyman’s friend Hauser chimes in “didn’t you follow them professionally before?” This snide remark is an obvious accusation that Hempf has been monitoring and censoring the theater for some time.
Later in the film, Dreyman learns that Albert Jerska, a playwright and former colleague, has committed suicide due to being depressed about being banned from theater productions. The feeling of injustice brought about by Jerska’s death prompts Dreyman to commit greater acts of resistance. The first of these acts is a fake attempt to smuggle Hauser across the border to West Germany in order to test whether or not his apartment has been bugged. When the plan works, Dreyman is lead to believe his apartment is safe and thus proceeds to plan an even greater act of resistance against the state: publishing a controversial article anonymously about the concealment of suicide statistics in East Germany; an act that would be considered treasonous in the eyes of the Stasi. In all these acts, Dreyman and his colleagues are testing the limits of domination by using what Scott calls the “weapons of the weak”, which are the ways in which subordinate groups resist domination without risking open confrontation (Scott, pp. 184).
As the movie progresses, we see that Wiesler starts sympathizing with Dreyman and eventually aligns himself with the subordinated. This is evidenced by his own acts of resistance; for example, when Dreyman plans his fake attempt to smuggle Hauser across the border, Wiesler deliberately chooses not to alert the authorities as his duty requires him to and writes “No further noteworthy incidents” in his reports for that evening. Later, since Dreyman (falsely) believes that his apartment is not under surveillance, he proceeds to use his apartment as the base of operations for publishing the controversial article. Wiesler continues to turn a blind eye to his actions and lies in his daily reports, stating that he’s writing a play for GDP 40th anniversary. Near the end of the film, when the Stasi are about to search Dreyman’s apartment for the unregistered typewriter used to write suicide article, a piece of evidence that would ensure Dreyman’s arrest, Wiesler breaks into the apartment in order to remove the typewriter, essentially sabotaging Grubitz’s and Hempf’s attempts at incriminating Dreyman. Although Wiesler himself is not the subject of domination, he uses tactics such as “foot-dragging, false compliance and feigned ignorance” in order to help Dreyman in his task of challenging the status quo (Scott, pp. 188).
This series of resistance lends credibility to Scott’s argument that veiled forms of retaliation against the agent of injustice is not an alternative to genuine resistance, and does not produce the catharsis that preserves the status quo (Scott, pp. 185). Both Wiesler’s and Dreyman’s acts of resistance start out quite benign, and becoming increasingly more defiant against the state as they both contest the terms of domination. Thus, as Scott would have predicted, it is these minor acts of resistance that accumulate to create a culture of protest, thus serving as a prelude to even greater acts of resistance that occur as the film progresses.
Das Leben der Anderen serves as a clear illustration of the Panopticism of disciplinary states such as East Germany and reveals how people oftentimes become complicit in their own domination to become “docile political subjects” (Foucault, lecture slide). However, director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck is also quick to point out that wherever there is domination, there will be resistance manifested in symbolic or genuine acts of aggression that challenge the balance of power. Near the end of the film, we witness the collapse of the Berlin Wall after several more years of struggle, and it is clearly implied by Henckel von Donnersmarck that minor acts of resistance, such as those committed by Wiesler and Dreyman, have played no small part in the ultimate reunification of Germany.
Henckel von Donnersmarck, Florian. Das Leben der Anderen. Buena Vista Pictures. 2006. Film
Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish, Panopticism. 1975. NY Vintage Books 2005. pp 195-228.