Spying on each other’s lives as multimedia bloggers, we’re not that different from the East German security police

Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s THE LIVES OF OTHERS (DAS LEBEN DER ANDEREN) turned out more interesting for its political implications, than for the broad melodrama underpinning its ”materialist” remake of Wim Wenders’ THE WINGS OF DESIRE. Lauded in Europe as the definitive answer to Ostalgia, THE LIVES OF OTHERS establishes an equally biased Westalgia by refusing to discuss the problems of the current surveillance state.

The fim chronicles the spying of socialist intelligentsia in East Germany of 1984 – a properly Orwellian year – which took place under the Stazis, an affectionate kraut term for the State security service. The Brechtian writer Dreyman, his femme fatale wife Christa and their socialist friends are plotting to publish a subversive article in DER SPIEGEL. The article reveals that the East German state hid the country’s alarming suicide figures from public view.

Wiesler, a Stazi intelligence officer, puts Dreyman and Christa under 24-7 surveillance. Initially presented as an obsessive voyeur (REAR WINDOW), Wiesler transforms mid-way into an angel. To secure an Academy Award, the angel will descend from his spying studio in the Heavens to intervene on Earth, saving Dreyman from the clutches of the Stazis. He does this by removing crucial evidence that Christa provided in a hearing session related to Dreyman’s subversive activites.

Tormented by guilt, Christa throws herself under the wheels. Her death is equally a result of the lifelong abuse she endured in the hands of the Stazis, as it is a realization of Dreyman’s article on suicide. Drawing a parallel with today’s ubiquitous networks, Donnersmarck suggests that mediated communication collapsed the boundary between ”reality” and ”fiction”. Already in these early stages of the surveillance state, our lives were being directed by the media.

After this melodramatic climax, THE LIVES OF OTHERS sinks like the Titanic. The Berlin Wall has fallen, the doors to integration are open, but the film doesn’t seem to register the persistence of social divisions. The Stazi officer has been relegated to the post office, where he will spend the rest of his days sorting envelopes. Donnersmarck proceeds to lament his fate as a consequence of socialism, oblivious to the parallel destinies of Eastern Europeans in capitalism. There is no sign of current realities in Germany, still grappling with its ex-DDR workforce, or the widespread problems with multicultural integration in the European Union.

Instead of showing how the East and West German ”Big Brother” societies mirrored each other, Donnersmarck simply greets the new world as the final horizon of happiness. This biased portrayal draws on the ideals of the ”open society”, where public access to information guarantees political freedom. What skips Donnersmarck’s attention is the obvious possibility that transparency may be serving as a disguise for control.

As I mentioned in the beginning, it is possible to extract a more productive analysis from the film’s implications:

Psychoanalytically speaking, the life of others is always your own life. The Stazi officer’s position as a blogger, who can observe the Brechtian couple’s lives, but never intervene in reality, ominously implies our inability to effect any meaningful social change. The new media have certainly increased the possibility for communication. But is this an encounter with otherness, or a narcissistic dialogue with our screen double?

In the film’s establishing scene, a reworking of Orwell’s 1984, the Stazi officer tells his students that reality is always already hijacked by mediation, so that the facts obtained in the course of an interrogation do not matter as much as the process itself. In Kafkian terms, the Party doesn’t really care about your guilt or innocence, only that they can make you feel guilty.

The film does not explain how these new structures developed through networks. Lacking a centralized authority, the new system relies on a peer-to-peer architecture to create the illusion of political freedom. Since there is no recognizable observer, the subject is alienated from his own surveillance. You can never be sure where the camera is located, who is watching and who is being watched, or worse, whether you are perhaps watching yourself. As Steven Shaviro noted, this is an instance of double-bind communication:

The most insidious form of power in the network is the way it both “incites, induces, seduces” us (to use Foucault’s words) and locates and tracks us, as well as the way that the “informatization” of everything is itself a kind of appropriation and control.

In an expository scene at the Brecht theater, the exercise of the Stazi’s power may be likened to political correctness. When the Brechtian writer asks the Stazis to help his friend Otto, who has been banned from the theatre scene, they vehemently dismiss the possibility that the Party could ever be involved in censorship. But their grinning reveals that this is exactly what they have done to Otto.

Under the mask of equality, humanism and openness, both socialism and capitalism have found new ways to deploy the media in the service of political control.


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